Evolutionary toxicology: Meta-analysis of evolutionary events in response to chemical stressors

Darwin’s rules of “evolution” and “survival of the fittest” also apply to populations of organisms exposed to chemical substances. Our review of the scientific literature revealed that long-term exposure to two classes of persistent pollutants, PAH’s and PCB’s, can affect the evolutionary trajectory of natural populations and make them more resistant to these chemicals. In some cases, this has happened at pollutant levels below currently applicable environmental quality standards. This calls for integrating evolutionary processes into regulatory decision-making.

Scientific Abstract

The regulatory decision-making process regarding chemical safety is most often informed by evidence based on ecotoxicity tests that consider growth, reproduction and survival as end-points, which can be quantitatively linked to short-term population outcomes. Changes in these end-points resulting from chemical exposure can cause alterations in micro-evolutionary forces (mutation, drift, selection and gene flow) that control the genetic composition of populations. With multi-generation exposures, anthropogenic contamination can lead to a population with an altered genetic composition, which may respond differently to future stressors. These evolutionary changes are rarely discussed in regulatory or risk assessment frameworks, but the growing body of literature that documents their existence suggests that these important population-level impacts should be considered. In this meta-analysis we have compared existing contamination levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that have been documented to be associated with evolutionary changes in resident aquatic organisms to regulatory benchmarks for these contaminants. The original intent of this project was to perform a meta-analysis on evolutionary events associated with PCB and PAH contamination. However, this effort was hindered by a lack of consistency in congener selection for “total” PCB or PAH measurements. We expanded this manuscript to include a discussion of methods used to determine PCB and PAH total contamination in addition to comparing regulatory guidelines and contamination that has caused evolutionary effects. Micro-evolutionary responses often lead populations onto unique and unpredictable trajectories. Therefore, to better understand the risk of population-wide alterations occurring, we need to improve comparisons of chemical contamination between affected locations. In this manuscript we offer several possibilities to unify chemical comparisons for PCBs and PAHs that would improve comparability among evolutionary toxicology investigations, and with regulatory guidelines. In addition, we identify studies documenting evolutionary change in the presence of PCB and PAH contamination levels below applicable regulatory benchmarks.

Full reference (link)

Oziolor EM, De Schamphelaere KAC, Matson CW. 2016. Evolutionary toxicology: Meta-analysis of evolutionary events in response to chemical stressors. Ecotoxicology 25 (10), pp 1858–1866.