Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Evolutionary Biology and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Signatures of selection in natural populations adapted to chronic pollution

Larissa M Williams1 and Marjorie F Oleksiak2*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, North Carolina State University, Box 7633, Raleigh, NC 27695-7633, USA

2 Division of Marine Biology and Fisheries, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami, FL 33149, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:282  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-282

Published: 10 October 2008



Populations of the teleost fish Fundulus heteroclitus appear to flourish in heavily polluted and geographically separated Superfund sites. Populations from three Superfund sites (New Bedford Harbor, MA, Newark Bay, NJ, and Elizabeth River, VA) have independently evolved adaptive resistance to chemical pollutants. In these polluted populations, natural selection likely has altered allele frequencies of loci that affect fitness or that are linked to these loci. The aim of this study was to identify loci that exhibit non-neutral behavior in the F. heteroclitus genome in polluted populations versus clean reference populations.


To detect signatures of natural selection and thus identify genetic bases for adaptation to anthropogenic stressors, we examined allele frequencies for many hundreds of amplified fragment length polymorphism markers among populations of F. heteroclitus. Specifically, we contrasted populations from three Superfund sites (New Bedford Harbor, MA, Newark Bay, NJ, and Elizabeth River, VA) to clean reference populations flanking the polluted sites. When empirical FST values were compared to a simulated distribution of FST values, 24 distinct outlier loci were identified among pairwise comparisons of pollutant impacted F. heteroclitus populations and both surrounding reference populations. Upon removal of all outlier loci, there was a strong correlation (R2 = 0.79, p < 0.0001) between genetic and geographical distance. This apparently neutral evolutionary pattern was not evident when outlier loci were included (R2 = 0.092, p = 0.0721). Two outlier loci were shared between New Bedford Harbor and Elizabeth River populations, and two different loci were shared between Newark Bay and Elizabeth River populations.


In total, 1% to 6% of loci are implicated as being under selection or linked to areas of the genome under selection in three F. heteroclitus populations that reside in polluted estuaries. Shared loci among polluted sites indicate that selection may be acting on multiple loci involved in adaptation, and loci shared between polluted sites potentially are involved in a generalized adaptive response.