Study Is Funded by $1.25M Grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Steinel with student in the biology lab Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

Asst. Prof. Natalie Steinel, left, and biology sophomore Maeve Moynihan use a fluorescence microscope to study cells from the three-spine stickleback fish.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

UMass Lowell researchers are studying fish with tapeworm parasites with the goal of improving our knowledge of the human immune system.

The research team, led by Asst. Prof. Natalie Steinel of the Department of Biological Sciences is studying the interactions between the host and parasites in fish to understand how the fish’s immune system can be manipulated.

“If we can find out how a parasite can modify the host’s immune response, we could potentially target those same pathways to design new immunosuppressive drugs for humans,” says Steinel, who is the principal investigator for the project.

“Fish are a major food source for people, so a better understanding of how their immune systems work will also benefit aquaculture and contribute to the production of a healthy food supply,” she says.

Three-spine stickleback fish Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

The three-spine stickleback (scientific name: Gasterosteus aculeatus), an elongated fish about 1 to 3 inches in size when mature, is found mainly in marine coastal waters and freshwater bodies throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

The research is funded through a five-year grant totaling $1.25 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

For the study, Steinel and her team use the three-spine stickleback (scientific name: Gasterosteus aculeatus), which is found mainly in marine coastal waters and freshwater bodies throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

“Sticklebacks are a great and well-established model system for studying host-parasite interactions,” notes Steinel. “They are infected in nature with a tapeworm known as Schistocephalus solidus, which we’ve found can suppress the immune system of some sticklebacks.”

The fish are kept in a new lab facility in the basement of Olsen Hall on North Campus that features a central circulation and filtration system as well as water treatment and UV disinfection systems. The lab’s aquarium system has 210 tanks with a centralized control system for monitoring and adjusting the water’s pH, conductivity and temperature. Sticklebacks are found in relatively cold environments, so the water temperature is maintained at 17° Celsius (63° Fahrenheit), according to Steinel.

Steinel with student in the fish lab Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

Steinel and Moynihan feed the sticklebacks with brine shrimp in Steinel’s fish lab at Olsen Hall on North Campus.

“My lab specializes in fish immunobiology. Scientists know a lot about the immune system of mammals, but our knowledge of the immune systems of other vertebrates is less in-depth. One of the major goals of my lab is to develop the tools to study the fish immune system and how it responds to infection,” she says.

Steinel is specifically interested in the interplay and co-evolution of hosts and pathogens. The lab investigates not only how the immune system of the fish can fight off parasites, but also how those infectious pathogens manipulate the host’s immune response.

Ecoimmunology Research

“My research is unique in that we can take what we’ve learned in the lab and study how the fish immune response functions in populations found in nature. Because the immune response is so influenced by the environment of the host organism, the immune response of animals raised in the lab is often very different from what happens in the real world,” explains Steinel.

She describes much of what her lab does as “ecoimmunology,” or the intersection of the fields of immunology, ecology and evolutionary biology. By studying the immune response of fish in the wild, the team can better understand variation in immune functions and how the immune response of one species can influence an entire ecosystem.

Steinel with student in Alaska
Steinel with biology sophomore Elsa Diffo Tiayo during fieldwork at Tern Lake, Alaska in June.
Steinel is collaborating with researchers from the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Connecticut and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

Under the grant, Steinel’s lab is conducting fieldwork on natural stickleback populations on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. “This summer, we are also studying Alaskan sticklebacks, and next year, we plan to expand our field research to New England and Icelandic stickleback populations,” she says.

Assisting Steinel in the research are biology graduate students Saraswathy Vaidyanathan, Maria Baez Calderon and Alexandra Collias, public health summer grad student Olivia Smith, biology undergraduates Erica Giuffrida, Gordon Sears, Trevor Cordwell, Princess Paul, Andrea Albano, Elsa Diffo Tiayo and Mirna Gouhar and summer Immersive Scholars Maeve Moynihan and Sonia Shah.