Defence mechanisms: The role of physiology in current and future environmental protection paradigms

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Ecological risk assessments principally rely on simplified metrics of organismal sensitivity that do not consider mechanism or biological traits. As such, they are unable to adequately extrapolate from standard laboratory tests to real-world settings, and largely fail to account for the diversity of organisms and environmental variables that occur in natural environments. However, an understanding of how stressors influence organism health can compensate for these limitations. Mechanistic knowledge can be used to account for species differences in basal biological function and variability in environmental factors, including spatial and temporal changes in the chemical, physical and biological milieu. Consequently, physiological understanding of biological function, and how this is altered by stressor exposure, can facilitate proactive, predictive risk assessment. In this perspective article, existing frameworks that utilize physiological knowledge (e.g. biotic ligand models, adverse outcomes pathways and mechanistic effect models), are outlined, and specific examples of how mechanistic understanding has been used to predict risk are highlighted. Future research approaches and data needs for extending the incorporation of physiological information into ecological risk assessments are discussed. Although the review focuses on chemical toxicants in aquatic systems, physical and biological stressors and terrestrial environments are also briefly considered.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbercoy012
JournalConservation Physiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan. 2018


  • Adverse outcomes pathway
  • Biotic ligand model
  • Metabolism
  • Risk assessment
  • Toxicodynamics
  • Toxicokinetics


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