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Mutat Res. 2001 Dec;489(2-3):97-122.

Effects of contaminants on genetic patterns in aquatic organisms: a review.

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  • 1Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


There is increasing awareness of the need to evaluate the effects of contaminants at the population level. Genetic techniques offer a powerful approach to assess contaminant-induced changes in populations. Yet studies to date are relatively few and not always carefully designed to maximize the utility inherent in this approach. We present a summary of contemporary genetic assessment methods and a review of published studies of genetic effects in field-exposed aquatic organisms. We discuss evaluations of genetic patterns that use genetic adaptation, allozyme variation, and molecular genetic (DNA) variation. Direct tests of genetic adaptation are very effective in establishing a concrete, and potentially deleterious population-level effect of contaminant exposure, but they are difficult to accomplish with most field-exposed organisms. Allozyme surveys are relatively simple and common, and may provide data that are suggestive of contaminant effects. However, these are rarely conclusive, primarily because few allozyme loci are variable and these few loci represent extremely small portions of the genome. Molecular genetic techniques have the potential to be very effective. But, there is a tendency to emphasize the power of the techniques, rather than the underlying causes of the molecular genetic patterns observed. The strength of the conclusions of each study varies widely, partially derived from variation in the strength of the techniques. We caution that all these approaches are greatly improved by careful experimental design that includes adequate numbers of reference and contaminated sites and sample size. In addition, careful exposure assessment is required, including site and tissue chemistry, biomarker responses, and measures of potentially deleterious effects, such as DNA damage, or reduced reproductive output or survival.

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