Superfund Research Program
Some Fish Quickly Adapt to Lethal Levels of Pollution
Evolution is working under pressure to rescue some coastal fish from a lethal, human-altered environment. Now, a new study has revealed the complex genetic basis for the Atlantic killifish's remarkable resilience.
The new findings, published Dec. 9 in the journal Science, build on decades of research into the killifish's ability to survive industrial contamination. Superfund Research Program (SRP)-funded scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) collaborated on the new multi-institutional study, which was led by the University of California, Davis. WHOI biologists and study authors Mark Hahn, Ph.D., and Sibel Karchner, Ph.D., have been studying killifish resistant to contamination in New Bedford Harbor since 1995 as part of the Boston University SRP Center.
While environmental change is outpacing the rate of evolution for many other species, killifish living in four polluted East Coast estuaries turn out to be remarkably resilient. These fish have adapted to survive levels of toxic industrial pollutants that would normally kill them, tolerating concentrations up to 8,000 times higher than sensitive fish. To better understand the genetic basis for this adaptation, the research team sequenced the genomes of nearly 400 individual killifish from four non-polluted sites and from four polluted ones. Since the 1950s and 1960s, these polluted sites have been contaminated by industrial chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Genetic analysis identified hundreds of "hotspots": regions of the genome that appeared to have undergone natural selection in the pollution-resistant killifish. Several of the strongest hotspots, which appeared in all four resistant populations, included genes involved in the previously identified aryl hydrocarbon receptor signaling pathway, which is involved in regulating a number of biological responses.
For more information about the study, see the WHOI News Release.
2016 Annual Meeting Celebrates Trainees
The Superfund Research Program (SRP) Annual Meeting on December 5 in Durham, North Carolina highlighted trainee accomplishments and provided a forum for presentations and discussion in areas critical to the Program's mission to address human and environmental health challenges related to hazardous waste sites. This included exceptional research presentations by SRP trainees and a panel that explored data sharing opportunities.
Elizabeth Martin, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, received the 2016 Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award. Martin discussed her cutting-edge research to understand the epigenetic mechanisms underlying the negative health effects associated with exposure to metals. The meeting also included talks from the seven 2015 KC Donnelly Externship Award winners, who each described his/her experiences and results from an SRP-funded externship at another SRP Center or federal/state agency.
Six graduate students also received awards for their posters during the graduate student poster session, which featured more than 80 entries.
In the environmental sciences and engineering category, the winners were:
- 1st Place: Ruben Spitz, Brown University
- 2nd Place: James P. Sanders, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
- 3rd Place: Elisabeth Feld-Cook, Louisiana State University
In the health sciences category, the winners were:
- 1st Place: Elana Elkin, University of Michigan
- 2nd Place: Stephanie Kim, Boston University
- 3rd Place: Hao Wang, University of Washington
The SRP Annual Meeting was held in conjunction with the NIEHS Environmental Health Science FEST (EHS FEST) December 6 - 8 in Durham. SRP staff and grantees also contributed significantly to the planning and presentations at EHS FEST. With more than 1,200 participants, EHS FEST brought together a diverse group of researchers, community engagement teams, trainees, and young investigators supported by NIEHS, which led to several days of excellent scientific dialogue and facilitated collaborations among grantees. SRP grantees presented their innovative research findings on a variety of topics, including the interactions between environmental toxicants and food, interventions and technology-based solutions to reduce environmental exposures, chemical exposure-induced host susceptibility, and the impact of chemical mixtures on the environment and health. Several SRP grantees also demonstrated their groundbreaking sensors and data analysis tools in a sensors and technology fair.
Toxicologists Share Novel Insights at NCSOT
The annual meeting of the North Carolina Chapter of the Society of Toxicology (NCSOT) explored how innovations in the stem cell and epigenetics fields could be applied to toxicological research. The Oct. 25 meeting, hosted by NCSOT at NIEHS, featured a career panel for trainees, four plenary speakers, a networking lunch, and posters and presentations by trainees. About 135 attendees packed the auditorium for the fast-paced event.
NCSOT currently enjoys strong leadership from NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) scientists, as well as scientists from other North Carolina research organizations. The president, Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., is a Superfund Research Program (SRP) health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.
"NCSOT is a great way for toxicologists, both professionals and trainees, from different regions of North Carolina to get together every year to discuss cutting-edge toxicological research," Carlin said. "It also benefits those researchers that may not be able to make it to the national Society of Toxicology meeting."
Visit the NIEHS Environmental Factor article to read more about the meeting.