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Ocean 'dead zones' trigger sex changes in fish, posing extinction threat

WASHINGTON, March 29 Oxygen depletion in the worlds oceans, primarily caused by agricultural run-off and pollution, could spark the development of far more male fish than female, thereby threatening some species with extinction, according to a study published today on the Web site of the American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science & Technology. The study is scheduled to appear in the May 1 print issue of the journal.

The finding, by Rudolf Wu, Ph.D., and colleagues at the City University of Hong Kong, raises new concerns about vast areas of the worlds oceans, known as "dead zones," that lack sufficient oxygen to sustain most sea life. Fish and other creatures trapped in these zones often die. Those that escape may be more vulnerable to predators and other stresses. This new study, Wu says, suggests these zones potentially pose a third threat to these species an inability of their offspring to find mates and reproduce.

The researchers found that low levels of dissolved oxygen, also known as hypoxia, can induce sex changes in embryonic fish, leading to an overabundance of males. As these predominately male fish mature, it is unlikely they will be able to reproduce in sufficient numbers to maintain sustainable populations, Wu says. Low oxygen levels also might reduce the quantity and quality of the eggs produced by female fish, diminishing their fertility, he adds.

In their experiments, Wu and his colleagues found low levels of dissolved oxygen less than 2 parts per million down-regulated the activity of certain genes that control the production of sex hormones and sexual differentiation in embryonic zebra fish. As a result, 75 percent of the fish developed male characteristics. In contrast, 61 percent of the zebra fish spawn raised under normal oxygen conditions more than 5 parts per million developed into males. The normal sex ratio of zebra fish is about 60 percent male and 40 percent female, Wu says
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Contact: Michael Bernstein
m_bernstein@acs.org
202-872-4400
American Chemical Society
29-Mar-2006


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