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Effects of pollutants on benthic populations and communities of North Sea organisms (ECOTOX2)

Research project EV/23 (Research action EV)

Persons :

Description :


Several classes of potentially toxic contaminants occur at high levels in the North Sea. These worrying contaminants include coplanar polychlorobiphenyls (cPCBs), polybrominated diphenyls ethers (PBDEs), dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and some metals (Cd, Pb, Hg, Zn). Tools for assessing the effects of these substances have been developed, the so-called biomarkers (biological responses indicating the exposure to or the effects of a contaminant in an organism). Most current biomarkers (as well as those in development) consist in responses at biochemical to individual levels of biological organisation. Actually, there are very few data to interpret the significance of the biomarker responses at the population or community level, which should be considered for the preservation of species and biodiversity.

Project description


To determine if the effects of contaminants of high concern in the North Sea (cPCBs, dioxins, furans, PAHS, PBDE, and metals -Cd, Pb, Hg, Zn- with possible synergic effects due to increased levels of organic matter) monitored at the gene to individual levels result in significant impairments of populations or communities of benthic organisms and if the early signals provided by biomarkers can effectively predict these ecological effects.


Considered organisms are marine benthic biota of great ecological and/or strategic importance, namely the starfish Asterias rubens, the mussel Mytilus edulis, and sediment-associated microbial communities (SAMC). The two first species are recognised bio-indicators of contamination and provide validated biomarkers or biomarkers in development. They are studied at the population level. SAMC are key components of soft sediments but are poorly known from an ecotoxicological point of view. They are studied at the community level.

The strategy is to determine the effects of contaminants on population or community parameters of the selected organisms in mesocosms and/or in the field together with biomarker responses, environmental and contamination conditions being either imposed (mesocosm experiments) or determined simultaneously (field studies).

Analysed contaminants are cPCBs, dioxins, furans, PAH, PBDEs, and metals (Cd, Pb, Hg, Zn). Environmental conditions taken into account are salinity, temperature, organic load of the sediment, and food availability for starfishes and mussels. Considered biomarkers are, in starfishes and mussels, metallothionein induction, cytochrome P450-1A activity, immune activity, embryotoxic assays, differential gene expression analysis. In addition, a bacterial cell stress gene-profiling assay is used to detect and characterise the nature of the pollution in marine sediments and suspended matter. This is a newly developed assay whereby the status of gene expression is measured through specific reporter constructs.

In field experiments, the strategy is to determine in a limited number of well-contrasted sites (1) general environmental conditions (temperature, salinity, available food), (2) contaminant levels (in sediments, suspended organic matter, and the selected biota), (3) population/or community parameters of the selected organisms, and (4) responses of the selected biomarkers. Then, through multivariate data analysis, differences in ecological parameters will be linked with environmental conditions and/or contaminant levels. Finally, correlations between biomarker responses and impairment of populations or communities will be established. Selected sites include contaminated and background sites in the Southern Bight of the North Sea (from Pas-de-Calais to Grevelingenmeer with stations along the Belgian coast and in the Scheldt estuary) and a hot spot (and associated gradient of contamination) in a Norwegian fjord. The parameters of starfish and mussel populations that are characterised are population dynamics (cohort analysis of size class distributions, to determine growth, survival, and death rates), organ indices (to characterise resource allocation), gametogenetic cycle, and reproductive capacity. Parameters of SAMC are biodiversity and abundance of dominant species (determined by molecular biology techniques).

Mesocosms experiments will allow to separate effects of specific factors (environment and contaminants) on the population and community parameters in controlled conditions. For that purpose, selected environmental parameters and levels of contaminants are manipulated with other parameters maintained at background condition. Studied variables are growth of recruits (i.e. newly settled juveniles), growth and metamorphosis of larvae, and biodiversity and abundance of dominant species of SAMC.

Interaction between the different partners

Four biologist teams (UMH-Biomar, ULB-Biomar -with its subcontractant ULB-ESA-, and UA) are in charge of field and mesocosm experiments, and biomarker measures. Two chemist groups (UMH-ChOrg and Ulg) will analyse, respectively, PAHs and cPCBs, PBDEs, dioxin and furans. Metals will be analysed by UA and ULB-Biomar.

Expected results and/or products

The main results expected are (1) an assessment of the impact of contaminants of high concern on populations of major invertebrates and communities of sediment-associated bacteria in the North Sea and (2) an evaluation of the ability of selected biomarkers to predict these effects. This will provide a case study in the field of ecotoxicology sensu stricto (i.e. at the level of population and community), a fundamental but rarely seeked objective in the marine environment.

The output of the project will provide both environmental agencies and industries with an assessment of the health status of coastal benthic communities of the Southern Bight of the North Sea and a determination of the factors of concern (these data can constitute the basis to decide if remedial actions are necessary or not - e.g. in recreational or shellfishing areas).

Results will also be used to raise the concern of the public and NGO for the protection of marine benthic ecosystems in general and of invertebrates in particular.



ULB. The research activities of the Marine Biology Laboratory (Biomar) deal with the biology, ecology, ecotoxicology, and aquaculture of marine invertebrates, with a particular interest for echinoderms. The Laboratory of Ecology of Aquatic Systems (ESA) is specialised in the functioning of aquatic ecosystems and their responses to natural and man-induced changes.

UMH. The Marine Biology Laboratory (Biomar) focuses on the biology of marine benthic invertebrates, notably echinoderms. Main topics are adhesive properties, symbiosis, and larval development including metamorphosis. The Organic Chemistry Laboratory (ChOrg) is specialised in mass spectrometry applied to new reactive molecules, atmospheric and marine pollutants, and amino acid sequences in peptides.

UA. The research of the Ecophysiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology group is focused on biological availability and accumulation of contaminants in aquatic organisms and ecosystems, and on the effects of environmental conditions and pollution exposure on physiological condition and toxicological effects.

Ulg. The Mass Spectrometry Laboratory research is focused on the development of analytical methods for micropollutants and on the study of molecular recognition between bio-molecules (proteins and DNA and complexes with xenobiotics).

Contact Information

Philippe Dubois
Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)
Laboratoire de Biologie marine CP160/15
50, avenue F.D. Roosevelt, B-1050 Brussels
Tel: +32 (0)2 650 28 39; Fax: +32 (0)2 650 27 96

Christiane Lancelot
Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)
Ecologie des Systèmes aquatiques CP221
boulevard du Triomphe, B-1050 Brussels
Tel: +32 (0)2 650 59 88; Fax +32 (02 650 59 93

Michel Jangoux
Université de Mons-Hainaut (UMH)
Laboratoire de Biologie marine
6, avenue du Champs de Mars, B-7000 Mons
Tel: +32 (0)65 37 34 70; Fax: +32 (0)65 37 34 34

Robert Flammang
Université de Mons-Hainaut (UMH)
Laboratoire de Chimie Organique
19, avenue Maistriau, B-7000 Mons
Tel: +32 (0)65 37 33 42; Fax: +32 (0)65 37 35 15

Ronny Blust
Universitet Antwerpen
Ecophysiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology Group
Groenenborgerlaan 171, B-2020 Antwerpen
Tel: +32 (0)3 218 03 47; Fax: +32 (0)3 218 04 97

Edwin De Pauw
Université de Liège (Ulg)
Laboratoire de Spectrométrie de Masse
Sart-Tilman B6c, B-4000 Liège
Tel: +32 (0)4 366 34 15; Fax: +32 (0)4 366 34 13

Users Committee

Jean-Marie Claereboudt - Vereniging der Industriële Bedrijven ten Noorden van Antwerpen
Jan Mees - Vlaams Instituut voor de Zee
Roland Moreau - Greenpeace Belgium
Georges Pichot - Modelling Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea

Documentation :

Effects of pollutants on benthic populations and communities of North Sea organisms (ECOTOX2) : final report  Dubois, Philippe - Blust, Ronny - Flammang, Robert ... et al  Brussels : Federal Science Policy, 2009 (SP2134)
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Bibliografic references :

Contaminant levels in sediments and asteroids (Asterias rubens L., Echinodermata) from the Belgian coast and Scheldt estuary : polychlorinated biphenyls and heavy metals  DANIS B., WANTIER P., FLAMMANG R., DUTRIEUX S., DUBOIS PH., WARNAU M in press (Sci Tot Environ), 2004 

Contrasting effects of coplanar vs non-coplanar PCB congeners on immunomodulation and CYP1A levels (determined using a novel ELISA method)  DANIS B., GORIELY S., DUBOIS PH., FOWLER S.W., FLAMAND V., WARNAU M the common sea star Asterias rubens, in press (Aquat Toxicol), 2004 

Coplanar PCB uptake kinetics in a common sea star (Asterias rubens, L.) and subsequent effects on ROS production by immune cells and on CYP1A induction  DANIS B., COTRET O., TEYSSIÉ J.L., FOWLER S.W., WARNAU M in press (Mar Ecol Prog Ser), 2004 

Delineation of PCB uptake pathways in a benthic seastar by means of a radiolabelled congener  DANIS B., TEYSSIÉ J.L., BUSTAMANTE P., COTRET O., FOWLER S.W., WARNAU M. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 253, 2003 

Echinoderms as bioindicators, bioassays and impact assessment tools of sediment-associated metals and PCBs in the North Sea  COTEUR G, GOSSELIN P, WANTIER P, CHAMBOST-MANCIET Y, DANIS B, PERNET PH, WARNAU M AND DUBOIS Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 45, 2003 

Environmental factors influencing the immune responses of the common European starfish (Asterias rubens)  COTEUR G, CORRIERE N, DUBOIS Fish Shellfish Immunol 16, 2004 

Field contamination of the starfish Asterias rubens by metals. Part 1: short- and long- term accumulation along a pollution gradient  COTEUR G, PERNET PH, GILLAN D, JOLY G, MAAGE A, DUBOIS Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 22, 2003 

Field contamination of the starfish Asterias rubens by metals. Part 2: Effects on cellular immunity. Environ  COTEUR G, PERNET PH, GILLAN D, JOLY G, DUBOIS Toxicol. Chem. 22, 2003 

Fluorimetric measurement of 7-ethoxyresorufin-O-deethylase (EROD) activity. Caution about the spectral characteristics of the standards used  RADENAC G., COTEUR G., DANIS B., DUBOIS PH., WARNAU M in press (Mar Biotechnol), 2004 

Population dynamics of Asterias rubens under contrasted environmental conditions: preliminary results  JOLY G, GUILLOU M, DUBOIS PH 2003 In Echinoderm Research 2001, J-P Féral and B. David (eds), Balkema: Lisse, 2003 

The effect of an acute copper exposure on the diversity of a microbial community in North Sea sediments as revealed by DGGE analysis- the importance of the protocol  GILLAN D. Mar. Pollut Bull (in press), 2004 

The effect of an acute copper exposure on the diversity of a microbial community in North Sea sediments as revealed by DGGE analysis- the importance of the protocol. Mar. Pollut Bull  GILLAN D in press, 2004 

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