Research shows how fish adapt to lethal levels of pollution

  • Dec. 9, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana University researcher Joe Shaw is a key contributor to a new study that reveals useful clues about how organisms may adapt to lethal levels of pollution.

Shaw, a scientist at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, is part of a research team that focused on the Atlantic killifish. They wanted to know why some killifish can rapidly adapt to thrive in waters laden with lethal concentrations of industrial pollutants -- levels that kill most other fish. Their study will be published Dec. 9 in the journal Science.

“Our environment is changing so quickly, faster than most species can evolve, so we need to find out why the killifish seems to have the genetic make-up to survive,” Shaw said. With the help of the IU Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics, the research team sequenced the genomes of killifish living in polluted and non-polluted harbors, rivers and bays in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia.

The scientists discovered that killifish maintain some of the highest levels of genetic variation ever recorded. The greater the genetic diversity, the faster evolution can operate to help the killifish adapt.

“We observed that the pollution-adapted fish from these very different areas evolved similarly,” Shaw said. “Our findings identified the types of genetic variation that allow these fish to live in such deadly environments, and this may prove important for predicting the responses of many species to pollution.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Andrew Whitehead of the University of California-Davis was the lead author of the study, "The genomic landscape of rapid repeated evolutionary adaptation to toxic pollution in wild fish."

In addition to Shaw, the research team also included Noah Reid of UC Davis, Dina Proestou of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bryan Clark of Oak Ridge Institute, Wesley Warren of Washington University, John Colbourne of the University of Birmingham, Sibel Karchner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Mark Hahn of Boston University, Diane Nacci of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Marjorie Oleksiak and Douglas Crawford of the University of Miami.

Killifish are small fish, about 3 to 4 inches in length, that are commonly found in brackish and coastal waters along the East Coast of North America from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to northeastern Florida. Shaw is a toxicologist who has spent years studying how killifish and other organisms alter their response to pollution and other natural stressors over time, research that may help predict and prepare for global climate change.

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IU researcher Joe Shaw seines for killifish at a site in Maine.

IU researcher Joe Shaw seines for killifish at a site in Maine.

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Jim Hanchett

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