The Strange Suspects: The Mysterious Case of the Aquarium’s Missing Anti-Parasitic Medicine

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Hungry microbes found responsible for stealing from Shedd Aquarium’s animals.

For months, veterinarians put medicine into the animals’ quarantine habitats at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, ensuring that animals entering the building did not bring dangerous pests or pathogens with them. And for months, the medicine consistently kept disappearing. Where was it going? Who was taking it? And what was their motive?

To help solve this classic whodunnit mystery, researchers at Shedd Aquarium partnered with microbiologists to collect clues, follow leads, and ultimately track down the culprit.

After conducting microbial and chemical analyses on samples from the saltwater aquarium systems, the team found it was not just one culprit but many: A family of microbes, hungry for nitrogen.

“Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorous are basic necessities that everything needs in order to live,” said Northwestern’s Erica M. Hartmann, who led the study. “In this case, it looks like the microbes were using the medicine as a source of nitrogen. When we examined how the medicine was degraded, we found that the piece of the molecule containing the nitrogen was gone. It would be the equivalent to eating only the pickles out of a cheeseburger and leaving the rest behind.”

The research was published online on October 2, 2021, in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

An expert on indoor microbiology and chemistry, Hartmann is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.

When any new animal enters Shedd Aquarium, it first must undergo a quarantine process before entering its permanent residence. This allows the aquarium’s veterinarians to observe the animal for potentially contagious diseases or parasites without risking harm to other animals at the facility.

“Shedd Aquarium’s quarantine habitats behind-the-scenes are a first stop for animals entering the building—allowing us to safely welcome them in a way that ensures outside pathogens are not introduced to the animals that already call Shedd home,” said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president of animal health at Shedd Aquarium and a co-author of the study. “We are grateful to have partnered with Northwestern University to scientifically explore what’s happening in our quarantine habitats microbially to inform how we manage them and continue to provide optimal welfare for the animals in our care.”

During this quarantine process, some animals receive chloroquine phosphate, a common anti-parasitic medicine. Veterinarians proactively add it directly to the water as a pharmaceutical bath to treat a variety of illnesses. After adding chloroquine… Brinkwire News Summary.

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