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Helgoland Marine Research

Open Access

Field bioassays for early detection of chronic impacts of chemical wastes upon marine organisms

  • W. E. Pequegnat1 and
  • T. A. Wastler2
Helgoländer Meeresuntersuchungen33:531


A major problem facing those who must assess the environmental effects of the disposal in the ocean of industrial and municipal wastes, including dredged materials, is determining whether given wastes elicit chronic deteriorative responses in important species of organisms. The full importance of such low-level, nonlethal effects is not known, but it is suspected that repeated elicitations may result in ecosystem changes as important as those caused by more easily determinable acute effects. Such considerations are important to the marine environment, where dumped pollutants may be quickly diluted to legal nonlethal concentrations, but may still bring forth cumulative chronic response patterns. One objective of this study has been to develop a field method of assessing the impacts of the disposal of various industrial and municipal wastes. The measure of the impact is not mortality measured against time, but the increase or decrease in activity of certain metabolic enzymes that signal whether an organism is under stress from a class of wastes. Also, by analysing tissues of test and indigenous species for the accumulation of metals, PCBs, and high molecular weight hydrocarbons as well as for the enzyme activity, one gains an insight into the actual effect, if any, of the accumulation upon the whole organism. The test organisms are exposed for selected periods of time in the field in devices called Biotal Ocean Monitors (BOMs); they are then assayed for enzyme induction. At present the following enzymes are used: mitochondrial ATPase, which responds particularly to excess biphenyls in the environment; catalase that is dissolved in the cytosol and responds to excesses of toxic metals; and cytochrome P-420 and P-450, which respond to cyclic and long-chain hydrocarbons. The applicability of the adenylate energy charge system to this problem is also studied.