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PLoS One. 2014 Mar 3;9(3):e90778. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090778. eCollection 2014.

Molecular response of estuarine fish to hypoxia: a comparative study with ruffe and flounder from field and laboratory.

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Institute of Zoology and Zoological Museum, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany.


On a global scale, the frequencies and magnitudes of hypoxic events in coastal and estuarine waters have increased dramatically over the past 20 years. Fish populations are suitable indicators for the assessment of the quality of aquatic ecosystems, as they are omnipresent and often comprise a variety of different lifestyles and adaption strategies. We have investigated on the molecular level the impact of hypoxia on two fish species typical of European estuaries. We monitored the expression of eleven putatively hypoxia-responsive genes by means of quantitative real-time RT-PCR in brains, gills and hearts of the ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernua) and the flounder (Platichthys flesus). We first investigated the effect of naturally occurring hypoxia in the Elbe estuary. In a second approach, expression changes in the response to hypoxia were monitored under controlled laboratory conditions. The genes that showed the strongest effect were two respiratory proteins, myoglobin and neuroglobin, as well as the apoptosis enzyme caspase 3. As previously observed in other fish, myoglobin, which was considered to be muscle-specific, was found in brain and gills as well. Comparison of field and laboratory studies showed that--with the exception of the heart of flounder--that mRNA levels of the selected genes were about the same, suggesting that laboratory conditions reflect natural conditions. Likewise, trends of gene expression changes under hypoxia were the same, although hypoxia response was more pronounced in the Elbe estuary. In general, the flounder displayed a stronger response to hypoxia than the ruffe, suggesting that the flounder is more susceptible to hypoxia. The most pronounced differences were found among tissues within a species, demonstrating that hypoxia response is largely tissue-specific. In summary, our data suggest that laboratory experiments essentially mimic field data, but additional environmental factors enhance hypoxia response in nature.

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