Response of fluctuating asymmetry to arsenic toxicity: support for the developmental selection hypothesis


Michal Polak

Document Type



Paediatrics and Child Health (East Africa)


The effect of exposure to sodium arsenite during development was tested on adult fluctuating asymmetry (FA) in sternopleural bristle number, bristle number, body size and survivorship in Drosophila melanogaster. Three genetic strains of flies were used, CT-106, PVM and Oregon-R, and arsenite concentrations ranged from relatively mild, sub-lethal doses, to concentrations with pronounced negative effects on survivorship. At arsenite concentrations of 1.0 and 0.125 mM, mortality was on average 38% greater than in controls, and surviving flies emerged significantly smaller and had fewer bristles than controls. Neither the effect of arsenite or the genotype×environment interaction on asymmetry were significant. However, given the high mortality, any increase in FA could have been masked by the outcome of developmental selection against developmentally unstable phenotypes. We tested for this effect by contrasting FA values between (1) flies reared at the highest concentrations used previously, (2) flies reared at sub-lethal dosage, and (3) controls. Positional fluctuating asymmetry (PFA), which is expected to be a sensitive indicator of underlying developmental stability, was significantly reduced among flies reared at the highest concentration, and at which flies suffered significant mortality. Moreover, the slope of the regression relating mean PFA to emergence per bottle was significantly positive. These data support the hypothesis that developmental selection occurred in this experiment, and that the expected positive relationship between asymmetry and stress may be altered when the stressor eliminates individuals from the population. In contrast, FA of flies reared at sub-lethal dosage did not differ from that in controls, a result that fails to support the hypothesis that arsenite disrupts developmental stability. Our results call for caution in FA-based biomonitoring, especially of potentially lethal forms of stress, because in the presence of developmental selection, and under the common assumption that FA should increase under stress, erroneous conclusions may be drawn about the health and well being of a population. It is suggested that FA-based biomonitoring efforts integrate the use of FA with other bioindicators, and experimentally validate any expected FA-stress relationship before attempting to infer the presence of environmental stress.


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University.

Publication (Name of Journal)

Environmental Pollution


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.