Research Overview

In humans and other vertebrates, early life development is a time of rapid growth and complex cellular differentiation and migration that is inherently sensitive to environmental influences.  Small changes in the chemical environment can influence how an individual grows when they are very young, and these changes in early growth and development can affect their health for the rest of their life.

The Duke Superfund Research Center studies how early life exposure to toxic chemicals impacts development and later-life health. Our theme is “Early Life Exposures, Later Life Consequences.”

What is early life exposure?

Early life exposures can occur during critical times in development, and have impacts throughout a person’s life. Below are some windows of time when early life exposures can happen:

  • Before birth, before a woman is pregnant
  • Before birth, while a woman is pregnant
  • After birth, during infancy
  • After birth, during childhood

Research Projects

The Duke SRC includes five research projects focused on the effects of early life exposures. The first three are biomedical-based, and the remaining two focus on environmental/ecological science and engineering. The chemicals we focus on have shifted over time. Currently, they include organophosphate flame retardants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and chemical mixtures including household dust and sediment extract from the Elizabeth River, VA. Learn more about our research projects below. 

1 – Neurodevelopment & Chemical Exposure
2 – Impacts on Developmental Pathways
3 – Mitochondrial Toxicity & Epigenetics

How do early life exposures disrupt cognitive and emotional development? What changes in the brain may hinder normal development?

How do early life exposures disrupt development and growth of fat cells as well as skeletal structures and bones cells?

How may early life exposures impact epigenetics and the functioning of mitochondria in developing organisms?

4 – Evolved Adaptations to Environmental Pollution
5 – Enhancing Bioremediation of Contaminated Sites

How might organisms evolve to be able to survive early life exposures? Do these adaptations have fitness costs?

Is bioremediation (using bacteria and fungi to cleanup contaminated sites) a viable alternative to more expensive and disruptive cleanup options?