Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Adaptation to PAHs in Fundulus heteroclitus

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Chronic exposure to toxicant mixtures is a serious threat to environmental and human health. It is especially important to understand the effects of these exposures for contaminants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are toxic, ubiquitous, and increasingly prevalent. Furthermore, estuarine systems are of particular concern, as they are highly impacted by a wide variety of pollutants; fish there are often exposed to some of the highest levels of contaminants of any vertebrate populations, along with other stressors such as fluctuations in water level, dissolved oxygen, and temperature. A population of Fundulus heteroclitus (the Atlantic killifish or mummichog, hereafter referred to as killifish) inhabits a Superfund site heavily contaminated with a mixture of PAHs from former creosote operations; they have developed resistance to the acute toxicity and teratogenic effects caused by the mixture of PAHs in sediment from the site. The primary goal of this dissertation was to better understand the mechanism(s) by which Elizabeth River killifish resist the developmental toxicity of a complex mixture of PAHs and to investigate the tradeoffs associated with this resistance. Because the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) pathway plays an important role in mediating the effects of PAHs, one major hypothesis of my work was that suppression of the AHR response plays an important role in the resistance of Elizabeth River killifish. For this reason, investigation of the activation of the AHR pathway, as measured by CYP induction, is a unifying thread throughout the work. Another major hypothesis of this work is that adaptation to PAHs has secondary consequences for Elizabeth River killifish, such as altering their response to other xenobiotics. To investigate these hypotheses, a series of experiments were carried out in PAH-adapted killifish from the Elizabeth River and in reference fish. The morpholino gene knockdown technique was modified for use in killifish; we demonstrated that CYP1A knockdown exacerbates PAH-driven cardiac teratogenesis and AHR2 (but not AHR1) knockdown rescues PAH-driven cardiac teratogenesis. Using acute toxicity tests of larval killifish, we showed that Elizabeth River killifish are less sensitive than reference larvae to chlorpyrifos, permethrin, and carbaryl. These results demonstrated that the adaptation was able to protect from multiple xenobiotics, not just PAHs. Using the in ovo ethoxyresorufin-o-deethylase (EROD) assay and a subjective cardiac deformity screen, we showed that the adaptation was spread throughout the killifish subpopulations of the Elizabeth River estuary. However, the adaptive response varied greatly among the subpopulations, which showed that AHR pathway suppression was not required for some level of protection from PAH toxicity. Finally, using the quantitative real-time PCR, the EROD assay, and cardiac deformity screening, we demonstrated that the adaptation was heritable for two generations of fish reared in clean laboratory conditions. The findings in this dissertation will help to reveal how mixtures of PAHs exert their toxic action in un-adapted organisms. Furthermore, these studies will hopefully demonstrate how chronic exposure to PAH mixtures can affect organisms at the population and even evolutionary level. Perhaps most importantly, they will help us to better predict the consequences and tradeoffs for organisms and populations persisting in PAH-contaminated environments.






Clark, Bryan (2010). Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Adaptation to PAHs in Fundulus heteroclitus. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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