Environmental & Developmental Mechanisms of Health and Disease

Environmental toxicants, pollutants, and chemicals can profoundly affect health and disease. Together with an individual’s genome and other influences (social, behavioral, hormonal), exposures to exogenous environmental factors predispose for cancer, endocrine disorders, and neurobehavioral and physiological disturbances. Developmental exposure is particularly problematic due to the propensity of toxicants to cause epigenetic, genetic, and molecular reprogramming changes that set the stage for subsequent disease. Faculty in this collaborative research area have a common goal of determining effects of environmental exposures on physiology, pathophysiology, and behavior, and deciphering the underlying cellular, biochemical, and molecular responses.


Faculty Participants: College of Pharmacy

  • Gore, Andrea C., Ph.D (Group Leader)
    Studies neuroendocrine control of reproduction and sex differences in the brain during development and aging.
  • Richburg, John H., Ph.D.
    Characterizes the molecular and cellular mechanisms that initiate testicular germ cells to undergo apoptosis after injury by environmental or chemotherapeutic agents.
  • DiGiovanni, John D., Ph.D.
    Focuses on understanding how cancer develops and on the identification of novel targets, mechanisms and strategies for cancer prevention.
  • Kidane, Dawit, Ph.D.
    DNA repair and genomic instability; infection-mediated inflammation and cancer; DNA damage response in preeclampsia.
  • Mills, Edward M., Ph.D.
    Understanding mitochondrial and bioenergetic signaling mechanisms that contribute to age-related metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
  • Mukhopadhyay, Somshuvra, M.B.B.S., Ph.D.
    A major goal of Mukhopadhyay’s research is to understand how gene-environment interactions alter neuronal physiology to induce parkinsonian disorders.
  • Vasquez, Karen, Ph.D.
    Research efforts are focused in the areas of genome instability, DNA damage and mechanisms of repair. A unique feature of this lab’s approach is an emphasis on the role of DNA structure in human disease and the development of novel therapeutic strategies for treating cancer.
  • Van Den Berg, Carla, Pharm.D.
    Research focuses on the role of growth factor-mediated treatment resistance in breast cancer.
  • Wright, Casey W., Ph.D.
    Studies the contribution of inflammatory signaling to the development and progression of autoimmune diseases, including hematological malignancies.

Faculty Participants: College of Natural Sciences

  • Seema Agarwala, Ph.D.
    Studies are directed at the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in neural tube closure. During this process, a flat neural plate rolls up and fuses to form a closed neural tube.  When this process goes awry, neural tube defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida can result. These defects are among the leading causes of congenital malformations and affect 1-5/1000 pregnancies.
  • David Crews, Ph.D.
    Research focused on the newly emerging field of environmental epigenetics that indicates an individual’s likelihood of developing health problems involves a combination of that individual’s own exposures to agents in the environment as well as exposures of ancestors in generations past.  Reptiles are used as  a model organism to take advantage of the fact that the sex of the offspring depends on the incubation temperature of the egg, a process known as temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD).
  • Richard Finnell, Ph.D.
    Research is centered on the investigation of  the interaction between specific genes and environmental toxicants as they influence normal embryonic development. While the primary research of the lab focuses on discovering the role of folic acid in the prevention of birth defects, his laboratory is also working to identify the gene or genes that determine susceptibility to human neural tube defects (NTDs) and to develop innovative translational interventions that can correct the defects in utero. Studies evaluate  teratogenic agents, both pharmaceutical compounds and those found in the environment, that contribute to the population burden of birth defects.
  • Hans Hofmann, Ph.D.
    Research is centered on the investigation of the causes of consequences of variation in physiology and behavior across individuals and species. Our research uses behavioral, neurobiological, molecular, genomic, and bioinformatics approaches to unravel the neuromolecular mechanisms that give rise to social behavior and to understand how these mechanisms have evolved across vertebrate animals.
  • Steve Phelps, Ph.D.
    Studies the evolution of the social brain. We use tools from neuroscience, molecular genetics & evolutionary biology to understand the natural diversity of animal behavior and its mechanisms.

Faculty Participants: College of Liberal Arts

  • Dominguez, Juan M., Ph.D.
    Research is focused on the investigation of the the neural-endocrine regulation of motivated behaviors; using mating behavior as a prototypic model to better understand motivation and its associated disorders, especially the neuroendocrinological factors that regulate depression and addiction.

Faculty Participants: University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Department of Molecular Carcinogenesis and Epigenetics

Bratton, Shawn B., Ph.D.Focused on two basic areas of research: apoptosis and autophagy and their role in the pathogenesis of autoimmune disease and cancer.


Associated Center


Research News:

Parkinson Gene Link: May Aid in the Battle Against the DiseaseDr. Somshuvra Mukhopadhyay, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology, led the research team that focused on the gene SLC30A10 and its role as a “door opener” in helping to remove elevated levels of manganese from cells.

Read more about Dr. Mukhopadhyay’s research.