Vitellogenin is not an appropriate biomarker of feminisation in a Crustacean

Stephen Short, Gongda Yang, Peter Kille, Alex T. Ford

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The expression of the yolk protein vitellogenin (Vtg) has been used as a biomarker of feminisation in multiple fish species throughout the world. Since the late 1990s, researchers have attempted to develop similar biomarkers to address whether reproductive endocrine disruption also occurs in the males of invertebrate groups such as the Crustacea. To date, the vast majority of studies investigating Vtg induction in male Crustacea have resulted in negative or inconclusive results, leading researchers to question the utility of Vtg expression as a biomarker in this taxon. This study measured the expression of Vtg genes in two intersex phenotypes (termed internal and external) found in the male amphipod, Echinogammarus marinus, and compared them with those of normal males and females. Males presenting the external intersex phenotype are infected with known feminising parasites and display a variety of feminised traits including oviduct structures on their testes and external female brood plates (oostegites). The internal intersex male phenotype, that displays a pronounced oviduct structure on the testes without the external intersex characteristics, is not parasite infected and it is thought to be a result of environmental contamination. Given their morphology, these phenotypes might be considered highly 'feminised' or 'de-masculinised' and can be utilised to test the suitability of feminisation biomarkers. The E. marinus transcriptome was searched for genes resembling Vtg and two sequences were revealed, that we subsequently refer to as Vtg1 and Vtg2. Results from a high-throughput transcriptomic sequencing screen of gonadal cDNA libraries suggested that very low expression (in this manuscript gene transcription is taken to represent gene expression, although it is acknowledged that in addition to transcription, translation, transcript processing, mRNA stability and protein stability can regulate gene expression) of Vtg1 and Vtg2 in normal males (ESTs=1 and 0 for Vtg1 and Vtg2, respectively), internal intersex males (ESTs=0 for both Vtg sequences) and external intersex males (ESTs=5 and 0 for Vtg1 and Vtg2, respectively). In contrast, the sequencing suggested notable levels of expression of both Vtg genes in females (ESTs=1133 and 84 for Vtg1 and Vtg2, respectively). Subsequent qPCR analysis validates these expression levels, with the signal for Vtg1 and Vtg2 transcripts in all male phenotypes being indistinguishable from that caused by contamination of trace levels of genomic DNA or the low-level amplification non-target sequences. These findings suggest that Vtg expression is not notably induced in highly feminised amphipods and is therefore not an appropriate biomarker of feminisation/de-masculination in crustaceans. We discuss our findings in the context of previous attempts to measure Vtg in male crustaceans and suggest a requirement for more appropriate taxon-specific biomarkers to monitor feminisation in these groups.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-97
JournalAquatic Toxicology
Early online date1 Dec 2013
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014


  • RCUK
  • NERC
  • NE/G004587/1


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