Stirring up the sediment, are we opening Pandora’s box?

Samera Mulatu, Georgia Southern University


The Approach: Would you believe if I told you that animals in the Charleston harbor are changing from female to male?! This process, known as imposex, occurs in marine snails when females develop male sex traits because they are exposed to harmful chemicals. One of my main goals in this project is to measure the rates of imposex in the Eastern mud snail (Tritia obsoleta, previously known as Ilyanassa obsoleta) within the Charleston Harbor to see if these rates increase over time due to the dredging of the harbor. There is a plan to begin dredging the Harbor later this fall, and the idea is that dredging will bring harmful chemicals in the sediment up into the water column. The data I am collecting now will be the imposex rates of the mud snail before the dredging brings up any harmful chemicals buried in the sediment of the harbor. However, we aren’t just collecting a bunch of snails and waiting for them to change sexes! No, there’s so much more to it than that!

As mentioned in my previous post, disruption of the Retinoid X Receptor (RXR) gene pathway is known to be central to inducing imposex in mud snails. By studying RXR we could learn a lot about what chemicals and how much of them are needed to induce imposex. However, the RXR gene for Tritia obsoleta has never been sequenced! So the first task in this project was to find the most closely related snails to the mud snail whose RXR sequences were already known. Primers were then designed based on these related RXR genes of known species. After this, mud snails were collected from the Charleston Harbor. 50 mud snails were collected that had a shell size of greater than 12 mM in height (to ensure that we were only using adults). The mud snails were dissected, and from different dissected parts RNA was then extracted to retrieve messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA was then reverse transcribed with reverse transcriptase enzyme into cDNA (‘reverse’ because DNA is usually transcribed into mRNA). The cDNA library generated represents all of the mRNAs in the mud snail tissue. The cDNA was then PCR amplified using the RXR-specific primers described above. Once the PCR products were obtained, they were column purified and sent off for sequencing!


I was preparing the primers for purification. Picture taken by: Cheldina Jean

Once the mud snail RXR sequences are retrieved, we will distinguish them into the two types of RXR gene forms, isoforms a and b. Designing new primers specific to these RXR isoforms, we can determine the relative abundance of each isoform based on chemical (i.e. TBT, DOSS, or SPAN 80) exposure in the lab using adult females. Hopefully, my results will contribute to a better understanding of what effect the dredging of the harbor will have on imposex rates of the mud snail. Furthermore, if we see that dredging is harmful to mud snails, it is probably not healthy for consumable seafood and people, as well. Something that may be considered when making future plans of dredging not only in the Charleston Harbor but other waterways as well.


Extracting the RNA of the mud snails. Picture taken by Samera Mulatu

I would like to give a big thank to Dr. Demetri Spyropoulos for guiding me in my research. Also to the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI- 1757899, for providing me with the funds to complete this project.

Related research

Hotchkiss, A.K, A.G.Leblanc, R.M. Sternberg. 2002. Synchronized expression of Retinoid X Receptor mRNA with Reproductive Tract Recrudescence in an Imposex- Susceptible Mollusc. Environ. Sci Technol. 42: 1345- 1351.

Ravitchandirane, V. S, M.Thangaraj. 2013. Phylogenetic Status of Babylonia Zeylanica (Family Babyloniidae) Based on 18S rRNA GENE FRAGMENT.Annals of West University of Timisoara, ser. Biology. 1(2): 135- 140.

Barron- Vivanco, B.S, D. Dominguez- Ojeda, I.M. Medina- Diaz, A.E. Rojas- Garcia, M.L. Robledo- Marenco. 2014. Exposure to tributyltin chloride induces penis and vas deferns development and increases RXR expression in females of the purple snail (Plicopurpura pansa). Invertebrate Survival Journal. 11: 204-2012.

Horiguchi, T., M. Morita, T. Nishikawa, Y. Ohta, H. Shiraishi. 2007. Retinoid X Receptor gene expression and protein content in tissues of the rock shell Thais clavigeraAquatic Toxicology. 84: 379-388.