Ecological Nanotoxicology: Integrating Nanomaterial Hazard Considerations Across The Subcellular, Population, Community, And Ecosystems Levels

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Holden PA, Nisbet RM, Lenihan HS, Miller RJ, Cherr GN, Schimel JP, Gardea-Torresdey J. Ecological nanotoxicology: Integrating nanomaterial hazard considerations across the subcellular, population, community, and ecosystems levels. Acc Chem Res 2013 03/19;46(3):813-22.


Research into the health and environmental safety of nanotechnology has seriouslylagged behind its emergence in industry. While humans have often adopted synthetic chemicals without considering ancillary consequences, the lessons learned from worldwide pollution should motivate making nanotechnology compatible with environmental concerns. Researchers and policymakers need to understand exposure and harm of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), currently nanotechnology’s main products, to influence the ENM industry toward sustainable growth. Yet, how should research proceed? Standard toxicity testing anchored in single-organism, dose-response characterizations does not adequately represent real-world exposure and receptor scenarios and their complexities. Our approach is different: it derives from ecology, the study of organisms’ interactions with each other and their environments. Our approach involves the characterization of ENMs and the mechanistic assessment of their property-based effects. Using high throughput/content screening (HTS/HCS) with cells or environmentally-relevant organisms, we measure the effects of ENMs on a subcellular or population level. We then relate those effects to mechanisms within dynamic energy budget (DEB) models of growth and reproduction. We reconcile DEB model predictions with experimental data on organism and population responses. Finally, we use microcosm studies to measure the potential for community- or ecosystem-level effects by ENMs that are likely to be produced in large quantities and for which either HTS/HCS or DEB modeling suggest their potential to harm populations and ecosystems.

Our approach accounts for ecological interactions across scales, from within organisms to whole ecosystems. Organismal ENM effects, if propagated through populations, can alter communities comprising multiple populations (e.g., plant, fish, bacteria) within food webs. Altered communities can change ecosystem services: processes that cycle carbon, nutrients, and energy, and regulate Earth’s waters and atmosphere. We have shown ENM effects on populations, communities, and ecosystems, including transfer and concentration of ENMs through food chains, for a range of exposure scenarios; in many cases, we have identified subcellular ENM effects mechanisms.

To keep pace with ENM development, rapid assessment of the mechanisms of ENM effects and modeling are needed. DEB models provide a method for mathematically representing effects such as the generation of reactive oxygen species and their associated damage. These models account for organism-level effects on metabolism and reproduction and can predict outcomes of ENM-organism combinations on populations; those predictions can then suggest ENM characteristics to be avoided. HTS/HCS provides a rapid assessment tool of the ENM chemical characteristics that affect biological systems; such results guide and expand DEB model expressions of hazard. Our approach addresses ecological processes in both natural and managed ecosystems (agriculture) and has the potential to deliver timely and meaningful understanding towards environmentally sustainable nanotechnology.