The acquisition and analysis of datasets including multi-level omics and physiology from non-model species, sampled from field populations, is a formidable challenge, which so far has prevented the application of systems biology approaches. If successful, these could contribute enormously to improving our understanding of how populations of living organisms adapt to environmental stressors relating to, for example, pollution and climate. Here we describe the first application of a network inference approach integrating transcriptional, metabolic and phenotypic information representative of wild populations of the European flounder fish, sampled at seven estuarine locations in northern Europe with different degrees and profiles of chemical contaminants. We identified network modules, whose activity was predictive of environmental exposure and represented a link between molecular and morphometric indices. These sub-networks represented both known and candidate novel adverse outcome pathways representative of several aspects of human liver pathophysiology such as liver hyperplasia, fibrosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma. At the molecular level these pathways were linked to TNF alpha, TGF beta, PDGF, AGT and VEGF signalling. More generally, this pioneering study has important implications as it can be applied to model molecular mechanisms of compensatory adaptation to a wide range of scenarios in wild populations.
Understanding how living organisms adapt to changes in their natural habitats is of paramount importance particularly in respect to environmental stressors, such as pollution or climate. Computational models integrating the multi-level molecular responses with organism physiology are likely to be indispensable tools to address this challenge. However, because of the difficulties in acquiring and integrating data from non-model species and because of the intrinsic complexity of field studies, such an approach has not yet been attempted. Here we describe the first example of a global network reconstruction linking transcriptional and metabolic responses to physiology in the flatfish, European flounder, a species currently used to monitor coastal waters around Northern Europe. The model we developed has revealed a remarkable similarity between network modules predictive of chemical exposure in the environment and pathways involved in relevant aspects of human pathophysiology. Generally, the approach we have pioneered has important implications as it can be applied to model molecular mechanisms of compensatory adaptation to a wide range of scenarios in wild populations.