The good, the bad and the ugly: lessons learned from vitamins, persistent organic pollutants, and the interaction of the two in western Arctic beluga whales

Date

2013-04-04

Authors

Desforges, Jean-Pierre

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Abstract

Many of the factors that shape contaminant accumulation profiles in marine mammals also strongly influence fat soluble vitamin accumulation. Vitamin A and E are essential fat soluble nutrients for numerous biological processes, including reproduction, growth, endocrine and immune function. Contaminants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), can alter vitamin dynamics; as such these vitamins have been proposed as sensitive biomarkers of contaminant exposure in wildlife. In light of these considerations, the present thesis was aimed at better understanding the factors that influence the accumulation of lipophilic contaminants and vitamins in western Arctic beluga whales, and to determine if there was an interaction between the two. Maternal offloading to neonates during gestation reduced overall contaminant (PCBs and PBDEs) and vitamin (A and E) concentrations in reproductively active female whales. The PCB and PBDE congener pattern in mothers changed during gestation as a result of preferential transfer of light-low Log KOW congeners to the fetus. Overall, female beluga whales transferred approximately 11% of their PCB and PBDE blubber burden to their fetus. In terms of vitamins transfer, lower concentrations of tocopherols, retinol and retinyl esters were found in reproductively active females relative to males and reproductively inactive females. Metabolism was also found to be an important factor for contaminant and vitamin accumulation in beluga tissues. In a principal components analysis, PCBs clustered into metabolically-derived structure-activity groups, which separated along the first principal component according to its metabolic potential (metabolizable vs. recalcitrant). Contaminant-related up-regulation of metabolizing enzymes, including cytochrome P450, likely explained changes in the concentration and pattern of PCB and PBDE congeners, as well as hepatic, plasma, and blubber vitamin A and E. Since vitamins and lipophilic contaminants accumulated in beluga whales in the same way in relation to most biological processes, including sex, reproduction, size, condition, and feeding ecology, it was important to control and reduce the number of these confounding factors before claiming any tissue vitamin change was indeed the result of chemical exposure. In doing so, it was found that vitamin A and E homeostasis was influenced by PCBs in beluga whales, resulting in reduced hepatic storage and increased plasma and blubber concentrations. Overall, these results suggest that liver, plasma, and inner blubber vitamin A and E concentrations can be sensitive biomarkers of contaminant exposure only if major confounding effects are taken into consideration. The implications of altered vitamin dynamics on the health of beluga whales is unknown at this time; however, as Arctic marine mammals face continued stress related to climate change, increased human disturbance and emergence of infectious diseases, this study can serve as essential baseline data that can be used to monitor the health status of western Arctic beluga whales.

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Keywords

Persistent organic pollutant, Beluga whale, Toxicology, Vitamins, Health effects

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