, Volume 64, Issue 2, pp 327-336
Date: 15 Nov 2012

Decreased Immune Response in Zebra Finches Exposed to Sublethal Doses of Mercury

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Mercury (Hg) is a ubiquitous contaminant with deleterious effects on many wildlife species. Most studies to date have focused on fish-eating birds and mammals because much historical Hg pollution is aquatic. Recently, however, comparable blood-Hg levels have been found in terrestrial insectivorous songbirds. As a result, research is needed to clarify the effects of Hg exposure on songbirds. One fundamental end point that is still poorly understood is the effect of Hg on the songbird immune system. If Hg affects the functioning of the immune system, exposed songbirds may be less able to mount an appropriate immune response against invading pathogens. To gain insight into how Hg affects songbird immune function on a cellular level, a flow cytometric assay was developed to measure lipopolysaccharide-induced B-lymphocyte proliferation in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). This is the first experimental (dosing) study of the potential effect of Hg on songbird immune system functioning. Decreased B cell proliferation was observed after lipopolysaccharide exposure in individuals with greater concentrations of Hg in their blood and tissues. In addition, these individuals had decreased ratios of proliferating-to-resting B cells. This decrease in lymphocyte proliferation in response to an effective mitogen suggests that environmental exposure to sublethal levels of Hg may inhibit or delay B cell proliferation in songbirds, potentially increasing susceptibility to disease and decreasing survivorship.