Open Access Research article

Targeted approach to identify genetic loci associated with evolved dioxin tolerance in Atlantic Killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus)

Dina A Proestou13*, Patrick Flight2, Denise Champlin1 and Diane Nacci1

Author Affiliations

1 US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Atlantic Ecology Division, 27 Tarzwell Drive, Narragansett, RI 02882, USA

2 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Brown University, 80 Waterman Street, Providence, RI 02912, USA

3 Current address: USDA Agricultural Research Service, 469 Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences, 120 Flagg Road, Kingston, RI 02881, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:7  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-7

Published: 14 January 2014



The most toxic aromatic hydrocarbon pollutants are categorized as dioxin-like compounds (DLCs) to which extreme tolerance has evolved independently and contemporaneously in (at least) four populations of Atlantic killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus). Surprisingly, the magnitude and phenotype of DLC tolerance is similar among these killifish populations that have adapted to varied, but highly aromatic hydrocarbon-contaminated urban/industrialized estuaries of the US Atlantic coast. Multiple tolerant and neighboring sensitive killifish populations were compared with the expectation that genetic loci associated with DLC tolerance would be revealed.


Since the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) pathway partly or fully mediates DLC toxicity in vertebrates, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from 42 genes associated with the AHR pathway were identified to serve as targeted markers. Wild fish (Nā€‰=ā€‰36/37) from four highly tolerant killifish populations and four nearby sensitive populations were genotyped using 59 SNP markers. Similar to other killifish population genetic analyses, strong genetic differentiation among populations was detected, consistent with isolation by distance models. When DLC-sensitive populations were pooled and compared to pooled DLC-tolerant populations, multi-locus analyses did not distinguish the two groups. However, pairwise comparisons of nearby tolerant and sensitive populations revealed high differentiation among sensitive and tolerant populations at these specific loci: AHR 1 and 2, cathepsin Z, the cytochrome P450s (CYP1A and 3A30), and the NADH dehydrogenase subunits. In addition, significant shifts in minor allele frequency were observed at AHR2 and CYP1A loci across most sensitive/tolerant pairs, but only AHR2 exhibited shifts in the same direction across all pairs.


The observed differences in allelic composition at the AHR2 and CYP1A SNP loci were identified as significant among paired sensitive/tolerant populations of Atlantic killifish with multiple statistical tests. The genetic patterns reported here lend support to the argument that AHR2 and CYP1A play a role in the adaptive response to extreme DLC contamination. Additional functional assays are required to isolate the exact mechanism of DLC tolerance.

Adaptation; Ecotoxicology; Candidate gene scan; Killifish