A Washington State University biologist has found the genetic mechanisms that enable a fish live in toxic, acidic water. The discovery opens the door to new insights into the functioning of other "extremophiles" and how they adapt to their challenging environments. "These fish are very extreme," said Joanna Kelley, Ph.D., a genome scientist in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University. "Ordinary fish, when you put them in that water, are belly up in about a minute." Dr. Kelley, together with colleagues from Kansas State University, Stanford University, and Mexico's Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco looked at the Atlantic mollies in southern Mexico. Measuring a little more than an inch, these fish live in tropical freshwater, brackish water, and volcanically influenced springs containing the acid hydrogen sulfide. Working in three drainages, the researchers compared the genes expressed in three sets of hydrogen-sulfide-tolerant fish and freshwater fish. "In the freshwater system, there are 30-plus species of fish," said Dr. Kelley. "In the sulfidic springs there's the molly." Published online on February 9, 2016 in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, the research was the rare "natural experiment" in which circumstances found in nature were similar to the controlled circumstances that they would have liked in a lab, said Dr. Kelley. The open-access article is titled “Mechanisms Underlying Adaptation to Life in Hydrogen Sulfide Rich Environments.” "This is one of the reasons that I got excited about this because we have this natural experiment where we can ask these questions," said Dr. Kelley. "It's not just one instance that we're looking at.
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