Traditionally, toxicity of river sediments is assessed using whole sediment tests with benthic organisms. The challenge, however, is the differentiation between multiple effects caused by complex contaminant mixtures and the unspecific toxicity endpoints such as survival, growth or reproduction. The use of gene expression profiling facilitates the identification of transcriptional changes at the molecular level that are specific to the bio-available fraction of pollutants.
In this pilot study, we exposed the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to three sediments of German rivers with varying (low, medium and high) levels of heavy metal and organic contamination. Beside chemical analysis, three standard bioassays were performed: reproduction of C. elegans, genotoxicity (Comet assay) and endocrine disruption (YES test). Gene expression was profiled using a whole genome DNA-microarray approach to identify overrepresented functional gene categories and derived cellular processes. Disaccharide and glycogen metabolism were found to be affected, whereas further functional pathways, such as oxidative phosphorylation, ribosome biogenesis, metabolism of xenobiotics, aging and several developmental processes were found to be differentially regulated only in response to the most contaminated sediment.
This study demonstrates how ecotoxicogenomics can identify transcriptional responses in complex mixture scenarios to distinguish different samples of river sediments.