Fracking and public health: Benjamin Jacobson

Focus on Undergraduate Research

By Tom Garlinghouse

Benjamin Jacobson, with arms crossed, in a blue shirt
Benjamin Jacobson. Photo by Stuart Jacobson

For his senior thesis, Benjamin Jacobson studied whether chemicals from fracking, the natural gas extraction process, interact with human DNA to affect the health of children.

Jacobson analyzed saliva samples from participants in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which since 1998 has followed children at risk due to poverty. Samples were collected in 2009 and again in 2015, a period during which the gas-extraction technology became more widely used in the United States.

Jacobson discovered that, during this six-year interval, children living near fracking sites experienced greater weight gain than children not exposed to fracking. He looked for markers on the children’s DNA called methyl groups.

“DNA methylation can act as a sort of switch to turn genes on and off,” Jacobson said.

He found changes in DNA methylation on certain gene sequences involved in cholesterol transport and fat production levels, demonstrating a possible correlation that could be explored through further studies.