Research in Action
Metabolomics: Forensic tools as early indictors of wildlife exposure to chemicals
Fish and wildlife are exposed to a myriad of conditions or agents in their natural environment that can cause them stress. These “stressors” may include chemicals such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and nutrients such as excess nitrogen. Elevated temperature, sediment from erosion, and runoff from mining operations can also impact animals.
There is evidence that animal populations can be threatened by exposure to these types of stressors. For example, some pollutants may cause a decline in egg production in female fish, while others cause male fish to acquire female characteristics.
The link between an exposure to a specific stressor and an adverse outcome in a population is not well understood. Scientists do not know how long fish must be exposed to chemicals – and at what levels - before they suffer irreparable harm.
Unfortunately, there is neither time nor money to test all possible adverse outcomes for every stressor on every animal for all exposure scenarios. EPA needs rapid, high-throughput, non-invasive, informative tools that can measure early indications of harm. These measurements can then be used in reliable, accurate models that predict adverse outcomes to populations due to exposure. Ecometabolomics, or the study of metabolic products to characterize the interactions of organisms with their environment, is such a tool.
EPA scientists are conducting ecometabolomics research and contributing to the development of 21st century tools and models for assessing chemical exposures. The researchers have advanced this program by using modeling systems to study known estrogenic chemicals and exposures to modeled species. They are now working to apply the technology to “real world” exposures by developing biomarkers of exposure for humans and important ecological species.
Results and Impact
EPA’s facility in Athens, Ga., has one of the world’s foremost programs in environmental metabolomics. There, scientists are developing tools for characterizing changes in metabolic substances produced by animal systems in the presence of different stressor chemicals and scenarios.
Ecometabolomic-based tools can help scientists understand how organisms compensate and recover from chemical exposures; identify biomarkers specific to certain adverse outcomes; and assess the effectiveness of ecosystem restoration activities like those underway in the Great Lakes region.