Even minuscule amounts of BP's crude oil has affected fish in profound ways in the Gulf of Mexico — even when oil in the water was nondetectable. This according to a paper in early view in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
The problems showed up as genetic responses in liver tissue and as aberrant protein expression in gill tissues — and they lived on in fish even after their environment looked and tested clean.
Researchers from Louisiana State University, Texas State University and Clemson University studied the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe on Gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis).
Researchers collected water and tissue samples from six sites — though only one, Louisiana's Barataria Bay, was heavily oiled. They collected at three times:
Once in early May before oil had reached shore
Once in late June when the marshes were fouled
Once in late August when oil was no longer visible
The researchers found that exposure to BP's crude oil caused the same kind of changes in gene expression in adult killifish from the marshes as in killifish embryos exposed to contaminated water samples in the lab. These types of changes are known to:
cause developmental abnormalities
to diminish embryo survival
to lower reproductive success
"This is of concern, because early life-stages of many organisms are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of oil, and because marsh contamination occurred during the spawning season of many important species," says lead author Andrew Whitehead.
The research echoes ongoing studies from the Exxon-Valdez catastrophe showing that sub-lethal biological effects of oil continue to impact herring and salmon populations long after the disaster. The new paper indicates Gulf killifish are suffering similar early sub-lethal effects in the Gulf.
And as with the Exxon Valdez, the fish are proving to be far more sensitive indicators of exposure and contamination than the environmental chemistry.
"Though the fish may be 'safe to eat' based on low chemical burdens in their tissues, that doesn’t mean that the fish are healthy or that the fish are capable of reproducing normally," says Whitehead.
Whitehead, A., B. Dubansky, C. Bodinier, T. Garcia, S. Miles, C. Pilley, V. Raghunathan, J. Roach, N. Walker, R. Walter, C.D. Rice, and F. Galvez. Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1109545108.
This story originally appeared on MotherJones.com and is reprinted here with permission.