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The killifish Fundulus heteroclitus is abundant in osmotically dynamic estuaries and it can quickly adjust to extremes in environmental salinity. We performed a comparative osmotic challenge experiment to track the transcriptomic and physiological responses to two salinities throughout a time course of acclimation, and to explore the genome regulatory mechanisms that enable extreme osmotic acclimation. One southern and one northern coastal population, known to differ in their tolerance to hypo-osmotic exposure, were used as our comparative model. Both populations could maintain osmotic homeostasis when transferred from 32 to 0.4 p.p.t., but diverged in their compensatory abilities when challenged down to 0.1 p.p.t., in parallel with divergent transformation of gill morphology. Genes involved in cell volume regulation, nucleosome maintenance, ion transport, energetics, mitochondrion function, transcriptional regulation and apoptosis showed population- and salinity-dependent patterns of expression during acclimation. Network analysis confirmed the role of cytokine and kinase signaling pathways in coordinating the genome regulatory response to osmotic challenge, and also posited the importance of signaling coordinated through the transcription factor HNF-4 . These genome responses support hypotheses of which regulatory mechanisms are particularly relevant for enabling extreme physiological flexibility. © 2012. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.

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Journal of Experimental Biology

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