Sci­en­tist seek fish and bird in­testi­nal sam­ples

Re­searcher study­ing the epi­ge­netic im­pact of methylmer­cury on wildlife in Lake Melville area

The Labradorian - - Classified - BY THOM BARKER

It takes guts — lit­er­ally — to do what a Memo­rial Univer­sity (MUN) re­searcher is study­ing.

John Atkin­son, a MUN PhD can­di­date, is study­ing the epi­ge­netic ef­fects of pol­lu­tion on wildlife and, by ex­ten­sion, hu­mans in the Lake Melville area. He is ask­ing fish har­vesters and hunters to do­nate the gas­troin­testi­nal tracts of their catches.

“There is, of course, con­tro­versy be­tween the build­ing of the dam there and the risk of in­creased methylmer­cury,” he said.

The study will look at the amount of mi­cro-plas­tics and methylmer­cury in the sam­ples col­lected and the epi­ge­netic ef­fects on the an­i­mals’ DNA.

Epi­ge­net­ics refers to ge­netic changes that do not af­fect DNA se­quences, but im­pact how cells read genes.

For ex­am­ple, sci­en­tists now be­lieve the ad­di­tion of a methyl group might cause epi­ge­netic changes that “turn off” genes that help re­pair DNA dam­age in­creas­ing the risk of can­cer.

So, far, only two peo­ple have con­trib­uted sam­ples to the project.

“I haven’t really got a whole lot of re­sponse to this point,” Atkin­son said. “Just talk­ing to peo­ple, it’s just really bad tim­ing.”

That is be­cause his plan had been to start col­lect­ing in Au­gust, but he was de­layed for a month pend­ing ap­provals and didn’t get go­ing un­til in be­tween fish­ing sea­son and the fall mi­gra­tory bird hunt.

Atkin­son said mi­cro-plas­tics—which have be­come the most preva­lent form of pol­lu­tants in the world’s oceans—act as a vec­tor for tox­ins, in­clud­ing methylmer­cury, to con­cen­trate in the tis­sues of wildlife.

Mi­cro-plas­tics in the en­vi­ron­ment, they ab­sorb en­vi­ron­men­tal tox­ins, they’re like sponges, so it’s sort of like the ef­fects when you make spaghetti sauce and put it in your Tup­per­ware con­tainer and you sort of get that residue,” he ex­plained.

The epi­ge­netic ef­fects on the an­i­mals may also be in­di­rect in­di­ca­tors of how hu­mans might be af­fected.

“Some pol­lu­tants, mi­croplas­tic-re­lated chem­i­cals, as well as methylmer­cury, they do cause mu­ta­tions in se­quence of the DNA,” he said. “They can change DNA within a per­son’s life­time, and they’re also her­i­ta­ble.”

He ref­er­enced the tol­er­ance of north­ern Euro­peans to lac­tose as an ex­am­ple of the role cul­ture and life­style can have in terms of epi­ge­net­ics. The ma­jor­ity, ap­prox­i­mately 65 per cent, of adult hu­mans on Earth are lac­tose in­tol­er­ant, yet a very high per­cent­age, be­tween 75 and 85 per cent of, can con­sume milk prod­ucts with­out any trou­ble. An­thro­pol­o­gists have now traced that de­vel­op­ment to Bronze Age life­style mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

Atkin­son pointed out that In­dige­nous pop­u­la­tions may be more sus­cep­ti­ble to epi­ge­netic be­cause of the im­por­tance and in­ter­re­lat­ed­ness of tra­di­tion­ally-har­vested food in their cul­ture and diet.

He will be con­tin­u­ing to ac­cept the sam­ples from birds un­til mid-De­cem­ber and hopes to start col­lect­ing fish sam­ples again when ice-fish­ing gets go­ing around the Fe­bru­ary time­frame. In­ter­ested har­vesters may drop off their car­casses in a sealed plas­tic bag or con­tainer at the Labrador In­sti­tute Re­search Sta­tion in North West River on Fri­days be­tween 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Atkin­son says he will also hap­pily ac­cept do­na­tions of mus­cle tis­sue (meat), but does not ex­pect peo­ple to give up their food.

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