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Mol Ecol. 2014 Dec;23(23):5803-15. doi: 10.1111/mec.12980. Epub 2014 Nov 21.

Immune response genes and pathogen presence predict migration survival in wild salmon smolts.

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Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia, 2424 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4, Canada.


We present the first data to link physiological responses and pathogen presence with subsequent fate during migration of wild salmonid smolts. We tagged and non-lethally sampled gill tissue from sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) smolts as they left their nursery lake (Chilko Lake, BC, Canada) to compare gene expression profiles and freshwater pathogen loads with migration success over the first ~1150 km of their migration to the North Pacific Ocean using acoustic telemetry. Fifteen per cent of smolts were never detected again after release, and these fish had gene expression profiles consistent with an immune response to one or more viral pathogens compared with fish that survived their freshwater migration. Among the significantly upregulated genes of the fish that were never detected postrelease were MX (interferon-induced GTP-binding protein Mx) and STAT1 (signal transducer and activator of transcription 1-alpha/beta), which are characteristic of a type I interferon response to viral pathogens. The most commonly detected pathogen in the smolts leaving the nursery lake was infectious haematopoietic necrosis virus (IHNV). Collectively, these data show that some of the fish assumed to have died after leaving the nursery lake appeared to be responding to one or more viral pathogens and had elevated stress levels that could have contributed to some of the mortality shortly after release. We present the first evidence that changes in gene expression may be predictive of some of the freshwater migration mortality in wild salmonid smolts.


Oncorhynchus nerka; acoustic telemetry; gene expression; smolt mortality; sockeye salmon

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