Because of two missing amino acids, this tomcod can swim through PCBs—and survive.
PCBs are nasty pollutants—they mess with hormones and have been linked to cancer—but until they were banned in 1977, dumping them in US rivers was a common practice for companies like GE. While plenty of wildlife suffered from ingesting PCBs, some fish in the Hudson and other be-sludged rivers evolved an immunity to the poisons, a intriguing example of quick adaptation that scientists have been watching with interest. A recent Economist article focusing on this research describes the fascinating genetic ju-jitsu that allows fish in the Hudson and in the harbor at New Bedford, MA, to keep themselves alive in PCB-contaminated waters.
PCBs do their damage by binding to a protein called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, or AHR, thus stopping it working properly. AHR is a transcription factor, meaning that it controls the process by which messenger molecules are copied from genes. These messenger molecules go on to act as the blueprints for protein production, so preventing a transcription factor from working can cause all sorts of problems. Both Hudson tomcod and New Bedford killifish, however, have unusual AHR molecules. And it is this that seems to explain their immunity.
A protein is a chain of chemical units called amino acids. In tomcods, AHR is composed of 1,104 such units. Except that in Hudson tomcod it frequently isn’t. These fish generally have 1,102 amino acids in their AHRs. The two missing links in the chain (a phenylalanine and a leucine, for aficionados) are encoded in the gene for ordinary tomcod AHR by six genetic “letters” that are missing from the DNA found in PCB-resistant Hudson tomcod. The shortened version of AHR does not bind nearly so easily to PCBs. It still, however, seems to work as a transcription factor. The result is fish that are more or less immune to PCB poisoning.