Molecular ecophysiology of Antarctic notothenioid fishes

C. H.Christina Cheng, H. William Detrich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The notothenioid fishes of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica are remarkable examples of organismal adaptation to extreme cold. Their evolution since the mid-Miocene in geographical isolation and a chronically cold marine environment has resulted in extreme stenothermality of the extant species. Given the unique thermal history of the notothenioids, one may ask what traits have been gained, and conversely, what characters have been lost through change in the information content of their genomes. Two dramatic changes that epitomize such evolutionary transformations are the gain of novel antifreeze proteins, which are obligatory for survival in icy seawater, by most notothenioids and the paradoxical loss of respiratory haemoproteins and red blood cells, normally deemed indispensable for vertebrate life, by the species of a highly derived notothenioid family, the icefishes. Here, we review recent advances in our understanding of these traits and their evolution and suggest future avenues of investigation. The formerly coherent paradigm of notothenioid freeze avoidance, developed from three decades of study of antifreeze glycoprotein (AFGP) based cold adaptation, now faces challenges stemming from the recent discovery of antifreeze-deficient, yet freeze-resistant, early notothenioid life stages and from definitive evidence that the liver is not the physiological source of AFGPs in notothenioid blood. The resolution of these intriguing observations is likely to reveal new physiological traits that are unique to the notothenioids. Similarly, the model of AFGP gene evolution from a notothenioid pancreatic trypsinogen-like gene precursor is being expanded and refined based on genome-level analyses of the linked AFGP loci and their ancestral precursors. Finally, the application of comparative genomics to study evolutionary change in the AFGP genotypes of cool-temperate notothenioids from sub-Antarctic habitats, where these genes are not necessary, will contribute to the mechanistic understanding of the dynamics of AFGP gene gain and loss. In humans and most vertebrates, mutations in the α- or β-globin genes or defects in globin chain synthesis are causes of severe genetic disease. Thus, the 16 species of haemoglobinless, erythrocyte-null icefishes are surprising anomalies - in fact, they could only have evolved and thrived due to relaxed selection pressure for oxygen-binding proteins in the cold, oxygen-rich waters of the Southern Ocean. Fifteen of the sixteen icefish species have lost most of the adult αβ-globin locus and retain only a small 3′ fragment of the α-globin gene. The only exception to this pattern occurs in Neopagetopsis ionah, which possesses a disrupted αβ-globin gene complex that probably represents a non-functional intermediate on the evolutionary pathway to near total globin gene extinction. By contrast, six of the icefish species fail to express myoglobin. The absence of myoglobin expression has occurred by several independent mutations and distinct mechanisms. Haemoprotein loss is correlated with dramatic increases in cellular mitochondrial density, heart size, blood volume and capillary bed volume. Evolution of these compensatory traits was probably facilitated by the homeostatic activity of nitric oxide, a key modulator of angiogenesis and mitochondrial biogenesis. These natural knockouts of the red blood cell lineage are an excellent genomic resource for erythroid gene discovery by comparative genomics, as illustrated for the newly described gene, bloodthirsty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2215-2232
Number of pages18
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1488
StatePublished - Dec 29 2007


  • Antarctic water temperatures
  • Evolutionary genomics
  • Haemoprotein loss
  • Notothenioid fishes
  • Stenothermal
  • Teleost freeze avoidance paradigm shift

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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