Avenues for future research to predict the effects of chemicals

Predicting effects of chemicals in ecosystems is complex due to many factors that influence the action of chemicals. Moreover, understanding chemical effects in ecosystems requires the integration of multiple levels of biological organisation such as cells, organs, organisms, whole populations, communities or ecosystems, which is rarely done. In this blogpost, Anke Schneeweiss and her research team provide a framework for how to integrate these levels by delineating connections between different ecotoxicological perspectives.

We produce, use and emit an increasing number of synthetic chemicals into the environment (for example pharmaceuticals, pesticides or industrial chemicals). Yet, our capacity to predict their effects in ecosystems is low. We, a small team from the Landscape Ecology working group at the Landau campus, have identified three perspectives that are important for predicting effects but are relatively disconnected from each other. We involved external experts to discuss our perception of the state of the art for the different perspectives and develop links to predict chemical effects in ecosystems. The related paper has recently been published in Global Change Biology under the title “Three perspectives on the prediction of chemical effects in ecosystems“.

We identified three perspectives that currently work on different biological levels, when aiming to predict chemical effects: the suborganismal, organismal and ecological perspectives (Figure 1). Each of these perspectives is reflected in its own research community and the use of specific tools and approaches. To improve prediction and establish relationships, we suggest the following:

First, studies should scrutinise the relation between chemical effects on the suborganism- and organism level and characteristics of chemicals and organisms, such as solubility and metabolic rate, respectively.

Second, responses that can be measured at multiple levels of biological organisation (e.g. suborganism- to population level), such as energy, need to be identified and tested for their potential to connect levels.

Third, data are required that cover many biological levels at the same time or different spatial and temporal scales. These could be collected in more complex micro- and mesocosm experiments.

Fourth, not everything can be considered and simplification is required. The most relevant processes need to be identified, measured and included in the prediction framework while keeping a balance between simplification and essential complexity in mind.

We suggest that linking the three perspectives (suborganismal, organismal and ecological perspectives) with their respective approaches and tools as well as making use of advanced methods could help predict chemical effects in ecosystems including for untested species.

The publication titled ‘Three perspectives on the prediction of chemical effects in ecosystems’ was authored by Anke Schneeweiss, Noël P. D. Juvigny-Khenafou, Stephen Osakpolor, Andreas Scharmüller, Sebastian Scheu, Verena C. SchreinerRoman Ashauer,  Beate I. Escher, Florian Leese, Ralf B. Schäfer and published in Global Change Biology