The Elizabeth River Story: A Case Study in Evolutionary Toxicology.
The Elizabeth River system is an estuary in southeastern Virginia, surrounded by the towns of Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach. The river has played important roles in U.S. history and has been the location of various military and industrial activities. These activities have been the source of chemical contamination in this aquatic system. Important industries, until the 1990s, included wood treatment plants that used creosote, an oil-derived product that is rich in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). These plants left a legacy of PAH pollution in the river, and in particular Atlantic Wood Industries is a designated Superfund site now undergoing remediation. Numerous studies examined the distribution of PAH in the river and impacts on resident fauna. This review focuses on how a small estuarine fish with a limited home range, Fundulus heteroclitus (Atlantic killifish or mummichog), has responded to this pollution. While in certain areas of the river this species has clearly been impacted, as evidenced by elevated rates of liver cancer, some subpopulations, notably the one associated with the Atlantic Wood Industries site, displayed a remarkable ability to resist the marked effects PAH have on the embryonic development of fish. This review provides evidence of how pollutants have acted as evolutionary agents, causing changes in ecosystems potentially lasting longer than the pollutants themselves. Mechanisms underlying this evolved resistance, as well as mechanisms underlying the effects of PAH on embryonic development, are also described. The review concludes with a description of ongoing and promising efforts to restore this historic American river.
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