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. Read More
The furiously evolving species is the bottom-feeding Atlantic tomcod, which lives in areas of the Hudson that were contaminated by PCBs through much of the 20th century.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were first introduced in 1929 and were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications, mostly as electrical insulators. They were banned 50 years later, but they don’t simply degrade. Partly because of PCB contamination, a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River is the nation’s largest Superfund site. [National Geographic]
Despite swimming in PCB-polluted waters and accumulating the chemicals in their systems, the tomcods are alive and well in the river. In a study in Science this week, Isaac Wirgin and colleagues show that this is because in the span of just a few dozen generations, the fish have evolved a resistance to PCBs.