My name is Francisco X. Mora and I am an aquatic toxicologist. I am currently a Postdoctoral Investigator in the Biology Department of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I have ten years of experience performing bioassays with aquatic organisms, out of which I have dedicated five years to study toxicology in fish. My lines of study have included assessments of the toxic effects of heavy metals, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. I focus on the effects of these compounds on behavior (e.g., swimming, response to visual stimuli, and prey capture), as well as their linkages to gene dysregulation, teratogenesis and mortality.
I study behavior because it is an integrator of the interactions between the environment and the physiology of an organism. Additionally, behavioral alteration is a subtle effect that may not immediately cause mortality, but may affect the survival skills of entire populations. Environmental neurotoxicants are capable of altering behavior via diverse mechanisms (e.g., affecting perception, altering gait and locomotion, modulating emotional states and impairing cognition). In order to study behavioral toxicology of aquatic pollutants, fish are especially relevant models due to their direct contact with aquatic ecosystems. In particular, zebrafish are also known to have orthologs for 70% of all human genes, thus making this species well-suited for risk assessment of human health and environmental hazards.
Most behavioral analysis methods rely on characterizing the activity of the organisms (i.e., how much are they moving, where are they moving, how are they moving). I employ automated machine vision algorithms that allow me to quantify and characterize the locomotor output of fish in response to chemical insult. In particular, I use both a commercial software (EthoVision; Noldus Infomation Technology) as well as a free and open-source algorithm (Ctrax, Branson et al., 2009; see video for a demonstration).
Neurotoxicants can trigger a wide variety of behavioral outcomes. Increased or decreased locomotor activity, failure to react when a stimulus is presented and learning impairment are all signs of behavioral and neurological abnormalities. Although I have dedicated most of my research to study the effects of methylmercury and pesticides, I have prepared a demonstration video that illustrates how I measure the effects of a better known neurotoxicant - Ethanol.
The data obtained from toxicology assays in fish can be utilized in the creation of ecological risk assessment models, such as Adverse Outcome Pathway (AOP) models. My research has led to the creation of an AOP to predict the effects of methylmerucry exposure in yellow perch (Perca flavescens) population dynamics.
Behavioral impairment in fish can also translate to potential risks to human health, zebrafish are also used as models for drug screening. In my current postdoctoral project, I screen for drugs with potential to ameliorate the effects of acute intoxication by organophosphate pesticides used as chemical warfare agents.
I extend my most sincere gratitude to the institutions that have provided the funding for my graduate studies, as well as to finance the research projects In which I have worked.