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Diseases of Aquatic Organisms

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DAO 64:237-246 (2005)  -  doi:10.3354/dao064237

Compressed vertebrae in Atlantic salmon Salmo salar: evidence for metaplastic chondrogenesis as a skeletogenic response late in ontogeny

P. Eckhard Witten1,2,*, Laura Gil-Martens3, Brian K. Hall2, Ann Huysseune4, Alex Obach3

1University of Hamburg, Zoological Institute, Martin-Luther-King Pl. 3, 20146 Hamburg, Germany
2Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, 1355 Oxford Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada
3Nutreco Aquaculture Research Centre, Sjøhagen 3, 4016 Stavanger, PO Box 48, 4001 Stavanger, Norway
4Ghent University, Vakgroep Biologie, Ledeganckstraat 35, 9000 Ghent, Belgium

ABSTRACT: Anterior/posterior (a/p) compression of the vertebral column, referred to as ‘short tails’, is a recurring event in farmed Atlantic salmon. Like other skeletal deformities, the problem usually becomes evident in a late life phase, too late for preventive measures, making it difficult to understand the aetiology of the disease. We use structural, radiological, histological, and mineral analyses to study ‘short tail’ adult salmon and to demonstrate that the study of adult fish can provide important insights into earlier developmental processes. ‘Short tails’ display a/p compressed vertebrae throughout the spine, except for the first post-cranial vertebrae. The vertebral number is unaltered, but the intervertebral space is reduced and the vertebrae are shorter. Compressed vertebrae are characterized by an unchanged central part, altered vertebral end plates (straight instead of funnel-shaped), an atypical inward bending of the vertebral edges, and structural alterations in the intervertebral tissue. The spongiosa is unaffected. The growth zones of adjacent vertebrae fuse and blend towards the intervertebral space into chondrogenic tissue. This tissue produces different types of cartilage, replacing the notochord. The correspondence in location of intervertebral cartilage and deformed vertebral end plates, and the clearly delimited, unaltered, central vertebral parts suggest that the a/p compression of vertebral bodies is a late developmental disorder that may be related to a metaplastic shift of osteogenic tissue into chondrogenic tissue in the vertebral growth zone. Given the lack of evidence for infections, metabolic disorders and/or genetic disorders, we propose that an altered mechanical load could have caused the transformation of the bone growth zones and the concomitant replacement of the intervertebral (notochord) tissue by cartilaginous tissues in the ‘short tails’ studied here. This hypothesis is supported by the role that notochord cells are known to play in spine development and in maintaining the structure of the intervertebral disk.

KEY WORDS: Notochord · Skeletal deformities · Vertebral malformations · Metaplasia · Bone · salmon · Chondrogenesis

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