Where Micro Meets Macro: What C. elegans Means for North Carolina

By Caroline Reed, Summer Intern in Dr. Joel Meyer’s lab


As an undergraduate student, I always knew I wanted to be involved in research. I was passionate about environmental issues but found the most opportunity and excitement in biomedical research settings. As a result, I quickly (and somewhat obliviously) found myself knee-deep in biomedical research projects. I genuinely enjoyed these endeavors, and yet there was always something lacking. This vacancy arose from an older part of me, one that isn’t always immediately obvious.

Caroline Reed

I have spent my entire life in North Carolina, which has unexpectedly impacted my current and future ambitions. It’s impossible to ignore the beauty of our state: the coastlines, Blue Ridge Mountains, and everything in between are unique, precious, and all too fragile. As a proud North Carolinian, and as a scientist, I cannot ignore the importance of protecting this land and the people who live on it.

My work in Dr. Joel Meyer’s lab addresses the missing piece I felt when working on biomedical research projects.  My projects here are at the crossroads between environmental studies and health sciences, and it seems to be an arena where my mind can comfortably work. Dr. Meyer’s research focuses on ecotoxicology; our goal is to understand how toxins in our environment are detrimental to the fitness of our ecosystems, wildlife, and humankind. Working in this lab has been reinvigorating, and it helped to redirect my scientific research path.

My work in the Meyer lab is focused on environmental arsenic exposure, and how this exposure may have transgenerational health-related outcomes for both small and large organisms. Specifically, we are examining how exposure to sodium arsenite during development potentially affects mitochondrial function in C. elegans, a nematode worm. The mitochondria are particularly vulnerable to environmental toxicity during development, and dysregulation can lead to disease outcomes. Going forward, this project will continue to examine how similar toxic exposures may influence epigenetic dynamics, and whether this is a driving factor for mitochondrial changes. This tiny worm is an advantageous environmental toxicology model; outcomes of C. elegans research could have relevance to human and environmental health alike.

While working in the Meyer lab, I was inspired to learn more about arsenic in our environment. Dr. Meyer’s research, although it focuses on the molecular or “micro” scale, has implications on a “macro” scale as well. According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, North Carolina ranks fourth in the U.S. for states most likely to have a population with “high arsenic” drinking water exposure (> 10 μg/L). Levels above the 10 μg/L threshold are classified as unsafe by the EPA, yet they are often found in well water across North Carolina.

Source: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/acs.est.7b02881

The facts are frightening, but pressing public health concerns like this ultimately propel us to understand and define the consequences of exposure to toxins. My time at Duke has helped me not only to redefine my niche in environmental health research, but also to further consider the “lesser-known” environmental issues right here in my own state. Toxins and toxicants in our environment need to be better understood and, in many cases, monitored and controlled more stringently. Such research will inform solutions to critical issues, with the aim of protecting the environment and humankind alike.