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Biogeography of resistance to paralytic shellfish toxins in softshell clam, Mya arenaria (L.), populations along the Atlantic coast of North America

Phillips, Jennifer M., Bricelj, V. Monica, Mitch, Maren, Cerrato, Robert M., MacQuarrie, Scott, Connell, Laurie B.
Aquatic toxicology 2018 v.202 pp. 196-206
Alexandrium, Mya arenaria, Mytilus edulis, alleles, binding capacity, biogeography, clams, coasts, cytotoxicity, gene flow, genotype, larvae, latitude, littoral zone, loci, mollusc culture, monitoring, mussels, mutation, paralytic shellfish poisoning, shellfish, sodium channels, toxins, Gulf of Maine, Maine, New York, Northwest Atlantic
Blooms of Alexandrium spp., the causative agent of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), recur with varying frequency and intensity on the Northwest Atlantic coast of North America, from New York, USA, to northern Canadian waters. Along this latitudinal range blooms co-occur with abundant, intertidal populations of softshell clams, Mya arenaria. Prior work identified a naturally-occurring genetic mutation in Domain II α-subunit of the clams’ voltage-gated sodium channels (NaV), which significantly reduces the binding affinity of the paralytic shellfish toxin, saxitoxin (STX). This mutation provides clams with resistance to the deleterious effects of STX, allowing them to continue feeding during Alexandrium spp. blooms and attain very high tissue toxicities. This study used genetic sequencing of the NaV mutation locus in clams from four coastal regions of the Bay of Fundy-Gulf of Maine and the mid-Atlantic to determine the percentage of clams in each region that possess the resistant NaV mutation. The genotype composition was related to the occurrence and magnitude of PSP outbreaks based on shellfish toxicity, primarily that of mussels, Mytilus edulis, used as a proxy for the prevalence and severity of Alexandrium blooms in each region. As hypothesized, the proportion of clams bearing the resistant mutation generally matched up well with the historical incidence and intensity of Alexandrium spp. blooms. The highest percentage of homozygote resistant clams (RR = 70.0%), and the lowest percentage of sensitive clams (SS = 4.5%) were found in eastern Gulf of Maine populations. Exceptions at a few sites where anomalously high numbers of M. arenaria with the resistant mutation were found despite the absence of blooms, may be attributable to larval gene flow. There was no evidence that Alexandrium blooms occurring in Northport Harbor, Long Island, have resulted in a shift in genotypic composition of the local clam population, presumably due to their low cell toxicity. Seasonal mismatch of highly vulnerable M. arenaria postset with toxic blooms at this latitude may also partly explain this result. This study provides strong supporting evidence that Alexandrium blooms can select for resistance to PSP-toxins in M. arenaria populations and proposes a mechanism for the persistence of the sensitive allele throughout the region. Implications for clam aquaculture (seeding) efforts, as well as for shellfish toxicity monitoring are discussed.