Two West Virginia University biologists believe pipefish may help save lives by predicting potentially harmful effects of chemicals.

Research assistant professor Jennifer Ripley and associate professor Christy Foran�€both in the Department of Biology in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at WVU �€recently received a two-year $222,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the differences in reproduction among pipefish species. Adam Martin, a senior biology student from Fairmont, is also assisting with the research.

Were trying to determine if the pipefish embryo incubation process is a good model for mammals,Ripley said.New pesticides and chemicals are constantly being developed. This research will help test the effects of emerging contaminants on pipefish embryos to better predict if any harmful effects may arise in people.

Pipefish typically live in shallow, salty bay water and estuaries�€areas which contain human-made pollution.

The small fish are good to study, Ripley said, because their embryos have shorter incubation periods than, for example, chimpanzees. Pipefish embryos typically become baby fish in two weeks.

Pipefish, like their seahorse relatives, leave most of the parenting duties to the males. Males have a specially developed area with a placenta-like surface called a brood pouch to incubate embryos, which are deposited by females.

The research project�€Relating Diversity of Brood Pouch Structure and Species Susceptibility to Environmental Factors�€will determine the rate of transfer of nutrients to pipefish offspring and track the growth of blood vessels in the brood pouch wall.

Significant differences have been described in the brood pouch between two closely-related pipefishes, Syngnathus floridae and Syngnathus fuscus , Ripley said. Specifically, the two species differ in the contribution of proteins and lipids from the male and female parent to developing embryos and baby fish.

Our studies are among the first to explore the function of brood pouch in this diverse and interesting family,Ripley said.The results will determine whether closely related species can have very different placental-like functions in the brood pouch.

Data suggests S. fuscus embryos rely more on nutrients from the male parent and developing S. floridae rely more on female parent nutrients.

The research project is being conducted at the Marine Science Consortium in Wallops Island, Va. and focuses on the unique mode of reproduction in pipefish and their habitat. At Wallops Island, an interactive display will highlight research findings and will introduce the process of scientific discovery, improve biological literacy and further the understanding of estuarine systems of participating students.