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Assessment of mitochondrial DNA damage in little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) collected near a mercury-contaminated river

July 1, 2014

Historical discharges of Hg into the South River near the town of Waynesboro, VA, USA, have resulted in persistently elevated Hg concentrations in sediment, surface water, ground water, soil, and wildlife downstream of the discharge site. In the present study, we examined mercury (Hg) levels in in little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) from this location and assessed the utility of a non-destructively collected tissue sample (wing punch) for determining mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) damage in Hg exposed bats. Bats captured 1 and 3 km from the South River, exhibited significantly higher levels of total Hg (THg) in blood and fur than those from the reference location. We compared levels of mtDNA damage using real-time quantitative PCR (qPCR) analysis of two distinct regions of mtDNA. Genotoxicity is among the many known toxic effects of Hg, resulting from direct interactions with DNA or from oxidative damage. Because it lacks many of the protective protein structures and repair mechanisms associated with nuclear DNA, mtDNA is more sensitive to the effects of genotoxic chemicals and therefore may be a useful biomarker in chronically exposed organisms. Significantly higher levels of damage were observed in both regions of mtDNA in bats captured 3 km from the river than in controls. However, levels of mtDNA damage exhibited weak correlations with fur and blood THg levels, suggesting that other factors may play a role in the site-specific differences.