Background: Hyperthermia has been shown in a number of organisms to induce developmental defects as a result of changes in cell proliferation, differentiation and gene expression. In spite of this, salmon aquaculture commonly uses high water temperature to speed up developmental rate in intensive production systems, resulting in an increased frequency of skeletal deformities. In order to study the molecular pathology of vertebral deformities, Atlantic salmon was subjected to hyperthermic conditions from fertilization until after the juvenile stage.
Results: Fish exposed to the high temperature regime showed a markedly higher growth rate and a significant higher percentage of deformities in the spinal column than fish reared at low temperatures. By analyzing phenotypically normal spinal columns from the two temperature regimes, we found that the increased risk of developing vertebral deformities was linked to an altered gene transcription. In particular, down-regulation of extracellular matrix (ECM) genes such as col1a1, osteocalcin, osteonectin and decorin, indicated that maturation and mineralization of osteoblasts were restrained. Moreover, histological staining and in situ hybridization visualized areas with distorted chondrocytes and an increased population of hypertrophic cells. These findings were further confirmed by an up-regulation of mef2c and col10a, genes involved in chondrocyte hypertrophy.
Conclusion: The presented data strongly indicates that temperature induced fast growth is severely affecting gene transcription in osteoblasts and chondrocytes; hence change in the vertebral tissue structure and composition. A disrupted bone and cartilage production was detected, which most likely is involved in the higher rate of deformities developed in the high intensive group. Our results are of basic interest for bone metabolism and contribute to the understanding of the mechanisms involved in development of temperature induced vertebral pathology. The findings may further conduce to future molecular tools for assessing fish welfare in practical farming.