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Open Access Research article

Convergence and divergence in gene expression among natural populations exposed to pollution

Marla A Fisher13* and Marjorie F Oleksiak23

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Hawai'i, Hilo, 200 W. Kawili St., Hilo, HI 96720, USA

2 Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences, University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Cswy, Miami, FL 33149 USA

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

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BMC Genomics 2007, 8:108  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-8-108

Published: 25 April 2007



Natural populations of the teleost fish Fundulus heteroclitus tolerate a broad range of environmental conditions including temperature, salinity, hypoxia and chemical pollutants. Strikingly, populations of Fundulus inhabit and have adapted to highly polluted Superfund sites that are contaminated with persistent toxic chemicals. These natural populations provide a foundation to discover critical gene pathways that have evolved in a complex natural environment in response to environmental stressors.


We used Fundulus cDNA arrays to compare metabolic gene expression patterns in the brains of individuals among nine populations: three independent, polluted Superfund populations and two genetically similar, reference populations for each Superfund population. We found that up to 17% of metabolic genes have evolved adaptive changes in gene expression in these Superfund populations. Among these genes, two (1.2%) show a conserved response among three polluted populations, suggesting common, independently evolved mechanisms for adaptation to environmental pollution in these natural populations.


Significant differences among individuals between polluted and reference populations, statistical analyses indicating shared adaptive changes among the Superfund populations, and lack of reduction in gene expression variation suggest that common mechanisms of adaptive resistance to anthropogenic pollutants have evolved independently in multiple Fundulus populations. Among three independent, Superfund populations, two genes have a common response indicating that high selective pressures may favor specific responses.