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Scientist seek fish and bird intestinal samples from Lake Melville area

The Labrador Institute of Memorial University
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. - Evan Careen

Researcher studying the epigenetic impact of methylmercury on wildlife in region

NORTH WEST RIVER, N.L.

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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