Sunday, July 02, 2000

Fish will monitor pollutants

Tests hoped to detect materials in water

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WILLIAMSBURG — By mid-July, Clermont County will begin using genetically altered fish to monitor lake and river water for cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).

(Mike Simons photo)
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        If the experiment works, county officials and anglers will have an early warning of pollutants leaking into drinking water and accumulating in the edible flesh of fish caught in Harsha Lake.

        Golden Longfin Mutant zebrafish — into which firefly genes have been inserted — glow in PCB concentrations far below those detected by conventional methods.

        “And the fish are also very cheap to maintain,” quipped Dr. Paul Russell, biochemist and consultant in charge of the field test.

        These animal sentinels, however, are not cheap to procure.

        Dr. Michael Carvan III, the aquatic toxicologist who performed the gene transfer at the University of Cincinnati the past two years, said the project has cost more than $500,000 for 40 minnow-size fish.

        “We're hoping they're going to work,” Dr. Carvan said. “One month a fish will work, another month it won't because something shuts down the alien gene.”

        Meanwhile, all 40 are in an aquarium in Dr. Russell's living room near Williamsburg.

        Using animal sentinels to warn humans of hazards is not new.

        Coal miners long used caged canaries to alert them to potentially lethal gases, Dr. Carvan said. “When a canary stops singing, it's time to get out of the mine.”

        Clermont County's field test involves pouring fish into a tank in a station monitoring the East Fork of the Little Miami River in Williamsburg, about 30 miles east of downtown Cincinnati.

        Williamsburg draws drinking water from the East Fork; much of the rest of Clermont County relies on water drawn from Harsha Lake into which the East Fork flows. Anglers also eat fish from those waters and PCBs concentrate in fish flesh.

        So far, PCB levels are low, but there is growing concern about long-term, low-level exposure.

        PCBs were used in hydraulic fluid and insulating oil for electrical equipment, paints, flame retardants, etc. Health concerns ended their U.S. production in 1979.

        Today, most PCBs found in the environment are blamed on discarded equipment and industrial wastes that were buried in leaking landfills or dumped illegally.

        Using inexpensive pet store zebrafish, Dr. Russell determined that transgenic zebrafish could prosper in water drawn directly from the river.

        “I had to make sure the fish could survive in those conditions before I put in the big dollar ones.”

        It went swimmingly.

        Meanwhile, Dr. Carvan, now at the University of Wisconsin-Mil waukee, is pursuing the second aspect of the experiment.

        This early warning system won't be cost-effective unless transgenic zebrafish transmit their talent to subsequent generations, Dr. Carvan said, and his 40 fish “are not passing the gene on to their offspring.”

        Jellyfish have a similar gene but it was less promising initially, Dr. Carvan said. That's why he chose the firefly. Now, however, he will try it and hope it glows in subsequent generations.

        It won't be easy or quick.

        Federal money exhausted, Dr. Carvan is working on a $35,100 county grant with little or no technical assistance.

        That investment is part of Clermont's pursuit of a comprehensive water resource protection strategy.

        County administrator Steve Wharton said the strategy also will improve land-use decisions with better predictions regarding polluted runoff from proposed residential and commercial developments.

        About four years ago, Mr. Wharton asked Dr. Russell for help. A special concern is possible PCB leaks from the closed CECOS hazardous waste landfill into Pleasant Run Creek, which drains into the Little Miami.

        Dr. Russell spoke to physician Daniel Nebert, a UC professor of environmental genetics, who had been looking for a chance to experiment with fish as harbingers of contamination.

        Dr. Nebert recruited Dr. Carvan and they developed their transgenic zebrafish on the three-year grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

        Coincidentally, insect specialist David Russell, Dr. Russell's son and doctoral candidate at Miami University, is studying common winter stone flies, fingernail clams and riffle beetles to see whether they can detect minute concentrations of pollution in the same waters.


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