Understanding the effects of pollutants on the genome is of crucial importance to preserve the evolutionary potential of endangered natural populations. The highly vagile European eel (Anguilla anguilla L.) has suffered a dramatic decline in recruitment since two decades, urging for a better understanding of the genetic impact of pollution. Its catadromous life history constitutes a model to assess local selection of pollutants on condition and genetic variability, as juveniles recruit in European rivers without appreciable pollution load or interfering genetic background. Because of its high fat content and local benthic feeding behaviour, the feeding stage is considered extremely prone to the bioaccumulation of pollutants. We studied the relationship between heavy metal bioaccumulation, fitness (condition) and genetic variability in the European eel. The muscle tissues of 78 sub-adult eels, originating from three Belgian river basins (Scheldt, Meuse and Yser), were examined for nine heavy metal pollutants (Hg. Cd, Pb. Cu, Zn, Ni, Cr, As and Se), while in total 123 individuals were genotyped at 12 allozyme and 8 microsatellite loci. A significant negative correlation between heavy metal pollution load and condition was observed, suggesting an impact of pollution on the health of sub-adult eels. In general, we observed a reduced genetic variability in strongly polluted eels, as well as a negative correlation between level of bioaccumulation and allozymatic multi-locus heterozygosity (MLH). Microsatellite genetic variability did not show any pollution related differences, suggesting a differential response at metabolic enzymes and possibly direct overdominance of heterozygous individuals. (c) 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.