News Blog

C of I research lab studies crayfish, aquatic systems

Crayfish, crawdad, crawfish, or if in Australia, Yabbie. College of Idaho biology professor Dr. Mark Gunderson doesn’t care what you call the lobster-like, freshwater crustacean. For him and his team of INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) lab students, crayfish could be a key model organism used to look at the impacts of environmental contaminants in aquatic systems.

Ever since Gunderson and his student researchers caught their first crayfish four years ago, the lab has been testing to see if proteins in invertebrate crayfish respond the same way as proteins in vertebrates such as alligators or fish.

“Right now, we’re getting some interesting preliminary data,” Gunderson said. “The markers that we’re interested in seem to be responding to laboratory treatments. Further down the road, what we’d like to do is go test field sites.”

When vertebrates are exposed to cadmium or mercury, levels of the protein metallothionein will increase to help bind up those heavy metals and protect cells. But when metallothionein is battling contaminants, such as heavy metals, it inhibits the normal detoxification process of vertebrates.

“Something that would normally would be safe, or easy to detoxify, isn’t so easy because that pathway has been inhibited,” Gunderson said.

And so far, the same seems to be true in crayfish.

Because crayfish are a keystone species—they help breakdown organic matter in streams and are a primary food source for fish, raccoons and birds—if they are unable to detoxify chemicals, and/or are dying, it can affect the health of the aquatic ecosystem.

For C of I seniors Brandon Nguyen and Brandon Smith, the chance to get both lab and field experience has been invaluable.  

“I think it’s fascinating to go study animals out in their habitat,” Smith said.

But being in the lab isn’t only about conducting your own independent research—it’s also about working with and learning from your colleagues and being able to express your research to others.

“It’s a great feeling to get this experience and work with great people like Dr. Gunderson and all your fellow lab members,” Smith said. “The relationships are really helpful.”

As senior members of Gunderson’s lab, Nguyen and Smith can now pass along their knowledge to the next crop of students rising through the ranks.

“Being able to teach someone coming in, or someone new, it’s a great feeling that you’re helping them,” Nguyen said.

Plus, explaining your work and helping others understand it only helps further your own understanding, Smith said.

“Gunderson always tells us, ‘It doesn’t matter that you’ve collected all that data if you don’t tell anyone,’” he said.

And the C of I INBRE fellows will have the opportunity to tell many others about their amazing research experiences at the annual INBRE conference, which will be held in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, this October.

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit