The Biologist Behind One of the Strangest Feuds in Scientific History

Illustration for article titled The Biologist Behind One of the Strangest Feuds in Scientific History

Atrazine is an herbicide marketed by agribusiness company Syngenta. It has been shown to "chemically castrate" frogs, turning males into females that are capable of rearing offspring; it is associated with birth defects, low birth weights, and menstrual problems in humans; and its use has been outright banned by the European Union.


It is also the second-most commonly used herbicide in America.

Most of what we know today about Atrazine's harmful effects were a mystery prior to 1997, the year that biologist Tyrone Hayes was approached to study the herbicide by Novartis — Syngenta's corporate predecessor — as part of a re-approval process mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.


At the time, Hayes hypothesized that "nothing would happen," because why would the company hire him to do this research if they suspected there might be a problem? But what he discovered would embroil him in a heated and embittered conflict with Syngenta — including a now-infamous serious of emails, written by Hayes, featuring graphic rap lyrics (both quoted and self-penned) — that continues to this day.

Now, Mother Jones' Dashka Slater has written a must-read profile on Hayes, his research, and his ongoing battle to make known the harmful effects of Atrazine. Included here is an excerpt, but do yourself a favor and check it out in its entirety. Hayes is nothing if not eccentric, but he is also unquestionably brilliant; to see him profiled as adeptly as he is here is a real treat.

Illustration for article titled The Biologist Behind One of the Strangest Feuds in Scientific History

DARNELL LIVES DEEP IN the basement of a life sciences building at the University of California-Berkeley, in a plastic tub on a row of stainless steel shelves. He is an African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, sometimes called the lab rat of amphibians. Like most of his species, he's hardy and long-lived, an adept swimmer, a poor crawler, and a voracious eater. He's a good breeder, too, having produced both children and grandchildren. There is, however, one unusual thing about Darnell.

He's female.

Genetically, Darnell is male. But after being raised in water contaminated with the herbicide atrazine at a level of 2.5 parts per billion-slightly less than what's allowed in our drinking water-he developed a female body, inside and out. He is also the mother of his children, having successfully mated with other males and spawned clutches of eggs. Recently he was moved to an atrazine-free tank and has turned lanky, losing the plump, pincushion look of a female frog. But last March, when UC-Berkeley integrative biology professor Tyrone B. Hayes opened him up to take a look, Darnell's insides were still female. "He still has ovaries, but there's no eggs in them," Hayes told me the next day as we stood watching the frog, who swam over and inspected us soberly, then turned and flopped away.

Hayes is a 5-foot-3 fireplug of a man with a gentle voice and an easy grin who favors black suits when he's on the lecture circuit and sweatshirts and running shorts the rest of the time. He is an unusual breed. You will find few other faculty members who keep their money and identification in a child's Spider-Man sock rather than a wallet, or run their daily 12-mile commute, or compose raps about their research and perform them at scientific meetings. The pool of endocrinologists and herpetologists who might casually mention lunching on homemade raccoon curry is also minuscule. And most scientists, upon discovering that trace amounts of one of the nation's top-selling herbicides cause gender-bending abnormalities in frogs, would have been content to publish their results and let the regulators and manufacturers fight it out.

But Hayes is not like other scientists. To be sure, he publishes in all the right journals and presents his work at the key scientific meetings, but he has also spearheaded a public outcry against atrazine, testifying at government hearings, appearing in all forms of media, and even launching, an anti-atrazine website.

All of this has earned Hayes something approaching rock-star status. He has been the subject of a children's book (The Frog Scientist), travels the world giving lectures, and by his estimate has appeared in a dozen documentaries. And while scores of researchers have described atrazine's worrisome effects, it is Hayes' knack for drama that has brought attention to the problem. Without him, atrazine might not be undergoing its third Environmental Protection Agency review in less than a decade, and Syngenta, the chemical's Swiss manufacturer, might not be facing lawsuits in state and federal courts by plaintiffs from 40 Midwestern water districts who claim atrazine has contaminated their drinking water. "He's a remarkable person," says David Skelly, a Yale ecologist who has served on two of the advisory panels that help the EPA vet atrazine research. "And he's become the personality associated with this issue because he's a remarkable person."

Yet over the years, Hayes has become engaged in a remarkably antagonistic sort of symbiosis with Syngenta. Company reps trail him from one speaking engagement to the next; Hayes, in turn, bombards Syngenta with a steady flow of emails laced with profane verses, academic taunts, and even accounts of his dreams. When a batch of these emails became public in 2010, Hayes' supporters and critics alike were stunned. Here was one of the top scientists in his field, provoking one of the world's largest agrichemical companies with crude sexual innuendos and LL Cool J-inspired raps:

tyrone b hayes is hard as hell

battle anybody, i don't care who you tell

you object! you will fail!

mercy for the weak is not for sale

"It hasn't been productive in the debate, and it hasn't helped him," Skelly says. "I mean, why do that?"

Illustration for article titled The Biologist Behind One of the Strangest Feuds in Scientific History

BORN IN A colored hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1967, Hayes grew up catching lizards, frogs, and turtles in the swamps near his grandmother's house, which sat on land where his ancestors once toiled as slaves. He was, admittedly, "a weird kid" who raised tadpoles in wading pools and set up bird blinds based on the ones he'd seen on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, wearing pots on his head to fend off jay and dove attacks while he filmed their nests. He would memorize the Latin names of South Carolina beetles in his grandmother's field guides and draw pictures of animals, people, and sci-fi characters.

Hayes' father, Romeo, was a carpet installer who never finished high school, and Hayes, too, struggled in school, largely because he was bored. "I finished all the math books by third grade and most of the reading books," he recalls. "So I was considered disruptive." By middle school, his artistic talents had attracted the notice of his teachers, who placed him in classes for gifted students. But it was science that dominated his thoughts. He spent hours with chameleonlike lizards called anoles, trying to understand what made them change color. He warmed them with a blow-dryer to see if it was heat, sheltered them in a doghouse to see if it was light, and found at last that the creatures had to be awake to color-match, a discovery that won him a state science fair prize. Later, when it came time to think about college, Hayes applied only to Harvard, because he'd heard the name on Green Acres. He got in.

The Ivy League proved a tough transition. At an undergraduate mixer his first day at Harvard in 1985, Hayes recalls introducing himself to a white student who looked at his outstretched hand and said, "It was because of affirmative action that I was wait-listed here." He felt isolated, drank too much, and thought about dropping out. But he gained his bearings with the help of amphibian expert Bruce Waldman, who mentored him, and his girlfriend Kathy Kim, who would become his wife and the mother of his two children. In the end, he graduated summa cum laude in biology. "It was the worst four years of my life," he says now. "But if I could do it all over again, I'd do it exactly the same."

After that rocky start, Hayes' rise was meteoric. He earned his Ph.D. in integrative biology from UC-Berkeley in just three and a half years. Less than a year later the university hired him as an assistant professor-he would soon become the second-youngest tenured professor in his department's history. Hayes might easily have spent his career as an obscure if well-regarded authority on the endocrine systems of frogs had not his work attracted the attention of a consulting firm called Pacific EcoRisk, which sought him out to evaluate atrazine's effects on amphibians.


Read the rest over on Mother Jones.
Top image via; All other photos by Annie Tritt via MoJo unless otherwise indicated

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Right, well, I guess you could believe the EPA and the dozens of studies performed under GLP and audited by the EU regulators, or I guess you could believe the handful of unreplicated results from the guy who emails corporations about his dreams. LOL!