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Development of epigenetic biomarkers to evaluate the effects of exposure to PAHs in fish


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are toxic chemicals that are important components of crude oil. Fish are exposed to background levels of PAHs in many aquatic environments across Canada, including the St. Lawrence basin. The “Stratégie Maritime du Québec” suggests that tanker traffic will increase significantly in the coming decades, making the possibility of an oil spill and exposure to high levels of PAHs in the St. Lawrence River more likely. With increased risk comes a critical need for data that can inform predictions of harm associated with present and future exposures to PAHs in aquatic environments. It is well documented that fish are sensitive to PAHs, particularly at the embryonic and larval stages. However, little is known about how fish that survive early life exposure to PAHs might fare later in life.

This research project will study potential impacts of PAHs from the point of view of environmental epigenetics, a growing field of research that is concerned with mechanisms that allow early life experiences to influence the health of individuals throughout their lives and into future generations. Methylation of DNA will be the focus of this study, serving as an epigenetic biomarker that is susceptible to toxicants. This biomarker is expected to be stable and persistent, and will be used to assess sublethal effects of PAHs in fish.

The proposed research will provide Fisheries and Oceans Canada with new tools for assessing persistent effects of PAHs in aquatic species.

Program Name

National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG)


2015 - 2017



Principal Investigator(s)

Jessica Head
Assistant Professor, Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University (Québec)

Team Member(s)

Magali Houde, Research Scientist, Centre Saint-Laurent, Environment Canada, (Québec)

Simon Blais, Coordinator of environmental programs, Environment Canada (Québec)

Yves Paradis, Biologist, Direction de la faune aquatique, Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parc du Québec, (Québec)

Niladri Basu, Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor, McGill University (Québec)

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