Transciptomic and histological analysis of hepatopancreas, muscle and gill tissues of oriental river prawn (Macrobrachium nipponense) in response to chronic hypoxia
© Sun et al. 2015
Received: 25 February 2015
Accepted: 15 June 2015
Published: 3 July 2015
Oriental river prawn, Macrobrachium nipponense, is a commercially important species found in brackish and fresh waters throughout China. Chronic hypoxia is a major physiological challenge for prawns in culture, and the hepatopancreas, muscle and gill tissues play important roles in adaptive processes. However, the effects of dissolved oxygen availability on gene expression and physiological functions of those tissues of prawns are unknown. Adaptation to hypoxia is a complex process, to help us understand stress-sensing mechanism and ultimately permit selection for hypoxia- tolerant prawns, we performed transcriptomic analysis of juvenile M. nipponense hepatopancreas, gill and muscle tissues by RNA-Seq.
Approximately 46,472,741; 52,773,612 and 58,195,908 raw sequence reads were generated from hepatopancreas, muscle and gill tissues, respectively. A total of 62,722 unigenes were generated, of the assembled unigenes, we identified 8,892 genes that were significantly up-regulated, while 5,760 genes were significantly down-regulated in response to chronic hypoxia. Genes from well known functional categories and signaling pathways associated with stress responses and adaptation to extreme environments were significantly enriched, including genes in the functional categories “response to stimulus”, “transferase activity” and “oxidoreductase activity”, and the signaling pathways “oxidative phosphorylation”, “glycolysis/gluconeogenesis” and “MAPK signaling”. The expression patterns of 18 DEGs involved in hypoxic regulation of M. nipponense were validated by quantitative real-time reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reactions (qRT-PCR; average correlation coefficient = 0.94). In addition, the hepatopancreas and gills exhibited histological differences between hypoxia and normoxia groups. These structural alterations could affect the vital physiological functions of prawns in response to chronic hypoxia, which could adversely affect growth and survival of M. nipponense.
Gene expression changes in tissues from the oriental river prawn provide a preliminary basis to better understand the molecular responses of M. nipponense to chronic hypoxia. The differentially expressed genes (DEGs) identified in M. nipponense under hypoxia stress may be important for future genetic improvement of cultivated prawns or other crustaceans through transgenic approaches aimed at increasing hypoxia tolerance.
In aquatic environments, oxygen levels often fluctuate and crustaceans experience hypoxic conditions on a regular basis . Macrobrachium nipponense, which is widely distributed in freshwater and low-salinity regions of estuaries, is one of the most important aquaculture species in China . This freshwater prawn is an attractive model to study responses to hypoxia because it is relatively susceptible to hypoxic conditions compared to other crustaceans . Hypoxic conditions cause stress that can inhibit the optimal development of crustaceans, resulting in reduced frequency of molts, metabolic changes, avoidance behavior, slow growth, suppression of immune function and even death [4–9]; however, few genetic markers to evaluate population genetics and perform phylogenic analysis [10–12] has meant that the molecular basis of chronic hypoxia exposure in Macrobrachium spp. is not well characterized. Recently, high-throughput transcriptomic sequencing was performed on the Illumina platform and this provided a genomic basis for further investigation of the hypoxia adaptation mechanisms of M. nipponense . Breeding programs also eagerly desire a better understanding of physiological and genetic mechanisms underlying sensitivity to oxygen limitation.
Comparative studies between organisms inhabiting distinct environments can provide insight into the mechanisms that underlie responses to environmental differences . In some cases, artificial treatments are used to create these differences in conditions and to facilitate comparisons [15–17]. To better understand the physiological and genetic changes in M. nipponense in response to hypoxia, comparative analysis between normoxic and hypoxic conditions is necessary. Previous research in M. nipponense has focused on the effects of hypoxia on respiratory metabolism , and there is growing evidence that changes in molecular indicators, such as energy production, antioxidant enzymes and oxygen-carrying proteins, can effectively imply chronic and acute hypoxia exposure in invertebrates [19–23]. When facing hypoxia, one of the main challenges of any tissue is to maintain energy levels either by increasing anaerobic energy-production, improving energy-utilization or by lowering energy consumption; however, cellular adaptations to chronic hypoxia in hepatopancreas, gill and muscle tissues in prawns remain unexplained. As a result of this knowledge gap, large-scale expressed sequence tag (EST) libraries of M. nipponense have been sequenced [24–26], as these should allow more comprehensive molecular studies. Recently, high-throughput RNA-sequencing (RNA-Seq) has emerged as a strategy for analyzing the functional complexity of transcriptomes [13, 27, 28]. With the emergence of next generation sequencing, RNA-Seq is a relatively new technology allowing transcriptomic studies of the whole genome. Compared to traditional cDNA microarrays, RNA-Seq provides deep sequencing data for direct quantification of transcripts, which makes it more sensitive for detecting all expressed genes without the need for EST collection, probe synthesis, microarray design and hybridization.
In this present study, we used RNA-Seq to investigate genome-wide gene expression differences in M. nipponense in response to chronic hypoxia. To provide insight into the mechanisms underlying hypoxia-sensitivity in M. nipponense, it is necessary to identify hypoxia-related genes such as those in the hepatopancreas, muscle and gill tissues, as these are the most important organs for metabolism of nutrients, energy storage and immune responses, respectively. Our study highlights the pathways that react in response to chronic hypoxia through gene ontology (GO) and pathway analyses. This present study provides useful information to better understand the genetic-level responses of M. nipponense when exposed to chronic hypoxia.
Results and discussion
RNA-Seq data processing, reference assembly and alignment
Summary of sequence data generated for the Macrobrachium nipponense transcriptome, and quality filtering
Total Clean Nucleotides (nt)
Assembly statistics of reads
Number of Unigene
Total bases of Unigene (bp)
Unigene mean lengths (bp)
Minimum length (bp)
Max length (bp)
GO enrichment analysis of genes up- or down-regulated in response to hypoxia stress
No. up- or down- regulated
Total in category
Immune system process
Respiratory electron transport chain
Transcription regulator activity
Chitin metabolic process
Response to stimulus
Response to chemical stimulus
Immune system process
List of DEGs in hepatopancreas, muscle and gill tissues of pranws in response chronic hypoxia
Differential expression tissues
inhibitor of apoptosis
extracellular copper/zinc superoxide dismutase
arginine kinase 2
carbonic anhydrase I
cytochrome c oxidase subunit I
cytochrome oxidase subunit I
NADH dehydrogenase subunit 1
NADH dehydrogenase subunit 4
heat shock protein 70
heat shock protein 90
heat shock protein 21
heat shock protein 60
fatty acid synthase
serine proteinase-like protein
β-1,3-glucan binding protein
KEGG Pathway enrichment analysis of differentially expressed genes in response to hypoxia stress (P-value <0.05)
Number of genes
Number of genes
Number of genes
MAPK signaling pathway
Glycolysis / gluconeogenesis
Fatty acid metabolism
Citrate cycle (TCA cycle)
Starch and sucrose metabolism
Insulin signaling pathway
p53 signaling pathway
Identification of DEGs
Functional analysis of DEGs in the hepatopancreas
The metabolic oxygen demands of the hepatopancreas tissues in crustaceans are relatively high and similar across different species . In response to chronic hypoxia, we observed significant gene transcription changes in the hepatopancreas under several GO terms, including upregulated genes for “oxidoreductase activity (GO:0016491)”, “oxidation-reduction process (GO:0055114)” and “catalytic activity (GO:0003824)” and down-regulated genes “electron carrier activity (GO:0009055)”, “immune system process (GO:0002376)” and “ion binding (GO:0043167)” (Table 3). The genes in the molecular function category of “oxidoreductase activity” and “electron carrier activity” are widely studied and known to be associated with oxidative stress, mitochondrial function and adaptation to environmental stress. Moreover, expression profiling studies on other crustaceans have shown that a cluster of genes involved with oxidoreductase activity are differentially expressed in response to environmental stresses, such as temperature and confinement [21, 22, 36, 37]. Genes in the category “electron carrier activity” are responsible for extracting energy, and the slowing down of the respiratory chain caused by a lower oxygen concentration is consistent with reports on stress adaptation and resistance observed for many organisms. For instance, amino acid and ion transmembrane transporters are essential factors for hypoxia responses in many plants  and aquatic animals, including mollusks  and teleosts . At same time, the mitochondrial electron transport chain is a major site of reactive oxygen species (ROS) production and hypoxic stress could increase hemocyte ROS production, probably because it partially inhibits mitochondrial electron transport producing redox changes in the electron carriers that increase ROS production at complex III [41, 42]. The delicate balance between antioxidant defense and ROS production can be disrupted by compromised antioxidant defense or inhibition of electron flow , thus leaving M. nipponense potentially vulnerable to ROS damage during hypoxia.
Functional analysis on DEGs in muscle tissue
In response to chronic hypoxia, in muscle tissues we observed significant enrichment of genes for several GO terms related to stress responses. These GO terms included “catalytic activity (GO:0003824)” and “transcription regulator activity (GO:0030528)” in upregulated genes, and “chitin metabolic process (GO:0006030)” in the down-regulated genes. Since muscle is the main tissue of protein deposition and energy storage, we identified four glycolytic enzyme DEGs in M. nipponense in response to hypoxia, suggesting that these were important regulators in response to hypoxia stress in muscles. Under such hypoxic circumstances, the major source of energy is the glycolytic pathway with pyruvate as the substrate, while fermentative metabolism produces lactate via lactate dehydrogenase (LD) . Similar to previous studies [45–47], the primary effects of hypoxia on skeletal muscle were strong increases in the transcription of hexokinase (HK), pyruvate kinase (PK) and LD, which may be a precursor for increased glycolytic ATP production. However, lactate is toxic for the cells and leads to arrest of cellular functions and cell death during hypoxia. Besides its effect on cellular ATP, hypoxia can also influence regulation of the cytoskeleton as reflected by changes in tubulin and myosin proteins. Regulation of myosin by hypoxia has also been shown in the heart muscle of rats . Tubulin-α and -β form the microtubules that are responsible for cellular functions including mitosis, cell motility and shape [49, 50].
Functional analysis on DEGs in gill tissue
Crustacean gills make an important contribution to immune defenses and have well established functions in gaseous exchange and ion regulation. In response to chronic hypoxia, in gill tissues we observed significant gene enrichment of several GO terms related to stress responses. These GO terms included “oxidoreductase activity (GO:0016901)” and “cell communication (GO:0007154)” in the upregulated genes, and “response to stimulus (GO:0050896)” and “response to chemical stimulus (GO:0042221)” in the down-regulated genes. Notably, there were 15 DEGs in the category “response to stimulus”. We further investigated these DEGs and observed that heat shock protein (HSP) and glutathione S-transferase (GST) genes were down-regulated in the gills in response to hypoxia. HSPs target damaged proteins to the proteasome, which prevents the accumulation of dysfunctional proteins and permits the recycling of peptides and amino acids. This result suggests a high level of autophagy in the gills during hypoxia stress. One of the well-studied transferase families is the GST gene family, as these genes perform essential functions in protecting cells against oxidative stress caused by various stresses, including toxic heavy metal ions [51–53], osmotic imbalance , salinity [55, 56] and pH changes . GSTs have been used as biomarkers for environmental pollution and toxin detection [58, 59]. We identified five DEGs belonging to the subcategory “immune system process” and there was down-regulation of prophenoloxidase (proPO), C-type lectin (CTL), antimicrobial peptide (AP) and alpha -2-macroglobulins (α2 M), which are all important for disease resistance in crustaceans [60–63]. Therefore, prolonged hypoxia may have population consequences, as individuals that have already down-regulated their aerobic metabolism may also have decreased immune defenses, which could result in higher risk of outbreaking disease of prawn population.
Confirmation of DEG candidate genes by real-time reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR)
To validate the RNA-Seq results, 18 genes showing a high level of significance or known to play an important role in stress response functions were selected for qRT-PCR analysis with β-actin acting as the reference gene (Table 4). No significant differences were shown between qRT-PCR and the Illumina data (Pearson’s correlation coefficient r = 0.94) (Fig. 5). In addition, a number of detoxification-related genes, such as GST and HSP, were also found to be specifically expressed in different tissues of M. nipponense in response to chronic hypoxia. These genes have been shown to be hypoxia-responsive in other studies [12, 21, 22], and they are involved in antioxidant abilities, immune responses, glycolysis and apoptosis, which are important functions for maintaining and re-establishing homeostasis in response to pathological changes. We also found that many genes related to mitochondrial respiration were significantly down-regulated under hypoxia stress according to qRT-PCR, such as cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (CCO I), cytochrome oxidase I (COX I), NADH dehydrogenase subunit 1 (Complex I) and carbonic anhydrase I (CA I), which reveals that normal mitochondrial function was disrupted by oxidative stress. As mitochondrial respiration is affected in many pathologic conditions such as hypoxia and intoxications, the impaired electron transport chain could emit additional p53-inducing signals and thereby contribute to tissue damage . We identified glycolysis related-genes from the DEG list for the muscle, and proPO, CTL, β-1,3-glucan binding protein (LGBP) and α2 M genes from the DEG list for the gill. Obviously, several genes could potentially be used as molecular indicators of hypoxia in M. nipponense at specific time points. However, the changes in the expression of these significant genes were too dynamic to serve as biomarkers of hypoxia stress in M. nipponense.
KEGG pathway enrichment analysis
Enrichment analysis is an effective way to identify the KEGG pathways that frequently occur in a tissue when the whole body transcriptome is used as the background [65, 66]. Additional pathway mapping can facilitate the interpretation of significant gene data derived from complex biological processes and systems, especially when trying to characterize DEGs related to environmental toxicants or stressors . Of the significantly expressed genes, 32 % had a match in KEGG pathways targeted by chronic hypoxia. The most abundant categories were associated with oxidative phosphorylation, the MAPK signaling pathway, glycolysis/gluconeogenesis and citrate (TCA) cycle (Table 5). The major biological processes occurring in the mitochondria (TCA cycle, coupling electron transfer and oxidative phosphorylation) were altered remarkably in the hepatopancreas, muscle and gill tissues of M. nipponense. These results are in agreement with studies that have reported higher activities of glycolytic enzymes and fatty acid beta-oxidation process after exposure to an acute stressor in fish [68, 69], this may be necessary to cope with the increased energy demand of the tissues. The concentration of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation is tuned to the maximum energy conversion requirements of a given tissue, and it is hypothesized that its activity is modulated by tissue metabolic stress to maintain energy-metabolism homeostasis .
Histological studies of the hepatopancreas and gills of M. nipponense in response to hypoxia
We performed comparative transcriptome profiling of M. nipponense in response to hypoxia, and identified a relatively large number of genes that displayed distinct differences in expression in hepatopancreas, muscle and gill tissues. Further analysis revealed that several well-known functional categories of genes and signaling pathways associated with stress responses and energy metabolism were significantly enriched, including genes in the functional categories “response to stimulus”, “transferase activity” and “oxidoreductase activity”, and signaling pathways of “oxidative phosphorylation”, “glycolysis/gluconeogenesis” and “TCA cycle”. Overall, our transcriptome map may provide significant insights into the underlying molecular mechanisms that govern the responses of M. nipponense to hypoxia stress. The hypoxia-induced and -reduced genes identified may prove to be potential candidates for global genetic engineering of salt tolerance in M. nipponense. The pathways, the gene expression patterns and histological variations in gills and hepatopancreas tissues provide insight into understanding the molecular mechanisms of hypoxia in crustaceans.
This study was approved by the Animal Care and Use Committee of the Centre for Applied Aquatic Genomics at Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences.
Several healthy oriental river prawns with wet weights of 2.86–3.45 g were obtained from Tai Lake in Wuxi, China (120°13'44"E, 31°28'22"N). All the samples were transferred to the laboratory of the Freshwater Fisheries Research Center and maintained in six 300-L tanks with aerated freshwater for one week prior to experimentation. During acclimation periods, prawns were hand-fed a commercial feed (Tongwei Group Co., Ltd.) containing 41.0 % crude protein at 5 % wet body weight twice daily. The culture conditions were 22.6 ± 0.5 °C, pH 8.2 ± 0.08, dissolved oxygen 6.5 ± 0.2 mg/L, total ammonia-nitrogen 0.08-0.09 mg/L, and a photoperiod of 14 h light/10 h dark.
The control group was maintained under normoxic conditions (6.5 ± 0.2 mg O2/L). Hypoxic (2.5 ± 0.1 mg/L dissolved oxygen) conditions in the treatment tanks were maintained for 7 days by bubbling with N2 gas until the desired O2 concentrations were reached; oxygen levels were maintained by adding N2 gas when needed. Oxygen concentrations were measured daily using a YSI 55oxygen meter (Yellow Springs, OH, USA). All exposures were conducted in triplicate for control and experimental group with three tanks in each group. After 7 days, the hepatopancreas, muscle and gill tissues of six prawns under hypoxia were removed as pooling samples in each tank, respectively. In parallel, six prawns held in air-saturated water (normoxia) were pooled as each negative control tank. Finally, these samples were immediately frozen in liquid nitrogen and stored at -80 °C until being processed. The study was approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Ethics Committee of Freshwater Fisheries Research Center, Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences (Wuxi, China).
RNA extraction and quality control
Total RNA was extracted from each tissue using TRIZOL (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA, USA) according to the manufacturer’s instructions. RNA samples were digested by DNase I to eliminate potential genomic DNA. Integrity and size distribution were checked on a Bioanalyzer 2100 with RNA 6000 Nano Labchips (Agilent technologies, Santa Clara, CA, USA). Equal amounts of the high quality RNA sample from each tissue were then pooled for RNA-Seq. cDNA library construction and sequencing and RNA-Seq library preparation and sequencing were carried out as previously described . cDNA libraries were prepared with 2.5 μg total RNA following the protocols of the Illumina TruSeq RNA Sample Preparation Kit (Illumina). After KAPA quantitation and dilution, the library was sequenced on an Illumina HiSeq 2000 with 100-bp paired-end reads. After removing adaptor sequences, ambiguous ‘N’ nucleotides (with the ratio of ‘N’ greater than 5 %) and low quality sequences (with quality score less than 10), the remaining clean reads were assembled using trinity software  as described for de novo transcriptome assembly without a reference genome and this generated the reference sequences including a number of EST sequences available in public domains for the comparative transcriptome study.
Functional annotation of assembled contigs
The assembled transcriptome contigs were subjected to similarity searches against the NCBI non-redundant (nr) protein database using BLASTx with e-value cutoff of 1e-10. Gene name and description was assigned to each contig based on the BLASTx hit with the highest score. GO analysis was conducted on the assembled transcriptome using InterProScan (http://www.ebi.ac.uk/Tools/pfa/iprscan/) and integrated protein databases with default parameters. The GO terms associated with transcriptome contigs were then obtained for describing their biological processes, molecular functions and cellular components. For pathway enrichment analysis, all DEGs were mapped to terms in the KEGG database and searched for significantly enriched KEGG terms compared to the whole transcriptome background. Functional enrichment analysis, including GO and KEGG, were performed using the ultra-geometric test to identify which DEGs were significantly enriched in GO terms (P-value ≤0.05) and metabolic pathways (q-value ≤0.05) compared with the whole transcriptome background [80, 81].
Read mapping and DEG analysis
All the cleaned reads were mapped to the assembled reference transcriptome by Bowtie , and about 70 % of the reads could be mapped to the reference for each sample (Table 1). RSEM was then used to estimate and quantify gene and isoform abundances according to the Trinity-assembled transcriptome. Finally, we used edgeR to normalize the expression levels in each of these samples and obtain the differentially expressed transcripts by pairwise comparisons . EdgeR uses a negative binomial distribution method for differential expression analysis.
qRT-PCR was used to validate the expression of 18 DEGs. The sequences of the primer pairs (designed using Primer Express 3.0) are listed in Additional file 2. qRT-PCR reactions were carried out using the Bio-Rad iCycler iQ5 Real Time System (Biorad Inc., Berkeley, CA, USA) using the β-actin gene as internal control . The PCR temperature profile and reaction conditions were performed according to the instructions of the SYBR Premix Ex Taq kit (TaKaRa, Dalian, China). For the negative control, diethypyrocarbonate (DEPC)-water replaced the template. A relative standard curve was constructed using 10-fold serially diluted cDNA. Each sample was run in triplicate along with the internal control gene. To ensure that only one PCR product was amplified and detected, a dissociation curve analysis of amplification products was performed at the end of each PCR reaction. The relative copy number of gene mRNAs was calculated according to the 2-∆∆CT comparative CT method . Pearson correlations between the qPCR data (average expression for each experimental group) and the Illumina data obtained by RNA-seq were calculated for each candidate gene.
Due to the hepatopancreas, gill and muscle of prawns being the main organs where multiple oxidative reactions, respiratory metabolism and genergy production occur with high metabolic activity. Three prawns from the hypoxia and normoxia groups were used to determine the histopathological effects of 7 days of hypoxia on the hepatopancreas, gill and muscle of prawns. The hepatopancreas, gill and muscle were removed and preserved in 10 % neutral-buffered formalin for 7 days. Then the samples were rinsed in 70 % ethanol and stored until further processing. The samples were dehydrated in isopropanol, cleared in xylene, infiltrated in paraffin, and then sectioned to a thickness of 5 μm. Sections were stained with hematoxylin and eosin and examined with a light microscope (Nikon Phase Contrast 0.90 Dry Japan). Hepatopancreas, gill and muscle tissue morphology was assessed in order to observe possible alterations revealed through differences in the condition of cell morphology.
Availability of supporting data
Raw sequencing data is available through the NCBI Sequence Read Archive under Project Accession SRP056408 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sra/?term=SRP056408).
We acknowledge Yan Wang (Shanghai Majorbio Biopharm Biotechnology Co., Ltd.) for their kind help in sequencing and bioinformatics analysis. This work was supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 31402280), by the Open Fund of Agriculture Ministry Key Laboratory of Healthy Freshwater Aquaculture of the Ministry of Agriculture (ZJK2013092), the National “Twelfth Five-Year” Plan for Science & Technology Support (2012 BAD25B07), and the Science & Technology Supporting Program of Jiangsu Province (Grant No. BE2012334).
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