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Ecotoxicological research at DIT

Author - Maria Davoren, Colm O’Dowd and Sharon Ní Shúilleabháin


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The term ecotoxicology, first defined by René Truhart in 1969, essentially describes the study of the harmful effects of chemicals upon ecosystems and understanding the pathways by which these deleterious effects are elicited (Walker et al., 1996). Thousands of new chemicals are produced each year requiring ecotoxicological evaluation, in addition to existing chemicals for which limited or no ecotoxicity data exists. Increased public concern regarding the impact of these anthropogenic chemicals on the environment, prompted DIT to expand its research portfolio to include the niche research area of aquatic ecotoxicology. DIT’s Radiation Science Centre was officially renamed the Radiation and Environmental Science Centre (RESC) in 2000 to reflect the increasing incorporation of ecotoxicological research conducted at the centre.

Research at the centre in the area of aquatic ecotoxicology was originally initiated by the centre’s director Dr Carmel Mothersill. Dr Mothersill has attracted substantial funding over the past ten years, including EU Framework 4 and 5 projects, for research projects in this area. The most recent funding has come from the Higher Education Authority under the Program of Research in Third Level Institutions (Cycle 2), for University College, Cork-led collaborative projects (VITOX and BIOMASSTOX) between University College, Cork, Cork Institute of Technology and the Dublin Institute of Technology. This funding has enabled the current environmental group (postdoctoral researcher Maria Davoren and two postgraduate researchers Sharon Ní Shúilleabháin and Colm O’ Dowd) to build upon and further exploit the assay systems and biomarkers previously established at the centre.

Acute ecotoxicity data for aquatic pollutants is presently derived from fish LC50 bioassays. The reduction or replacement of live animals in the testing of potentially hazardous environmental contaminants is, however, highly desirable for both ethical and economical reasons. Therefore, an important focus of the environmental group has been the development of novel in vitro cultures from fish and invertebrates of ecological importance for employment in ecotoxicological screening assays. The group has had considerable success in this area of research, a fact highlighted by the publication of peer reviewed papers (Mothersill et al., 1995; Mulford et al., 2001) and the contributions of several past researchers from the environmental group to a highly regarded book on aquatic invertebrate cell culture (Mothersill and Austin, 2000).

In addition to the development of novel culture systems, subsequent research focused on establishing the toxicity of chemicals of environmental concern (e.g. cadmium, copper, nonoxynol, prochloraz, and 2,4-dichloroanaline) employing established cell lines and cell culture systems developed in the centre. A significant number of publications have also arisen from this research which has been completed by former environmental researchers at the centre (Lyons-Alcantara et al., 1998; Dowling and Mothersill, 1999, 2001; Kilemade and Mothersill, 2000, 2001, 2003; Kilemade et al., 2002).