NSF Funds Collaborative Effort to Identify Genes Supporting Life in Extreme Conditions

Crawford and Oleksiak Drs. Doug Crawford and Margie Oleksiak in the Marine Genomics Laboratory

MIAMI — September 21, 2011 — In search of the genes that support life in extreme environments, researchers at the University of Miami (UM) are participants in a collaborative grant awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to sequence the genome of the Atlantic killifish Fundulus heteroclitus, a species known to have evolved extremely high tolerance to dangerous pollutants and to different thermal environments. Information on how these fish tolerate polluted or warm ocean water inform us on man’s impact on the earth and global warming.

The collaboration, led by LSU Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Andrew Whitehead, includes Douglas Crawford and Marjorie Oleksiak from UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science; Joe Shaw and John Colbourne from Indiana University; Wes Warren of The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis; and Mark Hahn from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in partnership with the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory.

The Atlantic killifish has a rich history as a useful model for research on how organisms respond to changes in the environment. Drs. Oleksiak and Crawford who created one of the first databases on expression of 1,000 of genes for killifish and used it to discern that certain populations of this fish have rapidly and repeatedly evolved extreme tolerance to the chemicals that pollute some estuaries along the Atlantic coast. Sequencing the genome of these fish will provide answers to how these fish survive and thrive in such stressful and normally lethal environments.

This new research aims to sequence the entire genome of the Atlantic killifish to provide a reference that can then be compared to the sequences generated from multiple other populations. This work will help guide the discovery of the genes and genetic changes that facilitate the dramatic evolution of pollution tolerance observed among the various populations of Atlantic killifish.

A complete genome sequence for the Atlantic killifish – with its many beneficial physiological and ecological characteristics — will also provide a critical research resource for the broader scientific community. Studying the genome of this fish promises to accelerate and advance our understanding of the wider genetic and historical determinants of health and disease within a changing environment for both wild species and humans.

About the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School
The University of Miami is the largest private research institution in the southeastern United States. The University’s mission is to provide quality education, attract and retain outstanding students, support the faculty and their research, and build an endowment for University initiatives. Founded in the 1940’s, the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science has grown into one of the world’s premier marine and atmospheric research institutions. Offering dynamic interdisciplinary academics, the Rosenstiel School is dedicated to helping communities to better understand the planet, participating in the establishment of environmental policies, and aiding in the improvement of society and quality of life. For more information, please visit

dr. doug crawford •  dr. margie oleksiak •  national science foundation •  physiology •  environmental •