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Toxicology. 2000 Nov 16;153(1-3):61-72.

Applications and pitfalls of stress-proteins in biomonitoring.

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Flemish Institute for Technological Research VITO, Boeretang 200, 2400, Mol, Belgium.


The vast number of potentially hazardous chemicals and the complex interactions that can occur between them in environmental mixtures, call for inexpensive, early and sensitive endpoints that reflect their biological effect. The existing validated bioassays, mostly based on lethality or reproduction, have been shown to be inadequate in respect of their sensitivity, the duration and expense of the test. In contrast, changes at biochemical level are usually the first detectable responses to environmental perturbation. Because these alterations underlie all effects at higher organisational level, they have often been shown to be very sensitive indicators of pollution. Stress-proteins (also referred to as heat-shock proteins or hsp) have recently been recognised as being one of the primary defence mechanisms that are activated by the occurrence of denatured proteins in the cell. Four major stress-protein families of 90,70,60 and 16-24 kDa are the most prominent and are frequently referred to as hsp90, hsp70, hsp60 and low molecular weight (LMW) stress-proteins. Three aspects of stress-proteins have been characterised that are essential if they want to be used as biomarkers of pollution: (1) they are part of the cellular protective response; (2) their synthesis is likely to be induced by a large number of chemicals; and (3) they are highly conserved in all organisms from bacteria to plants and man. Also, field studies have shown (be it for a limited number of stressors) that the stress response can occur even at the minute concentrations of pollutants that are usually found in the environment. However, increasing knowledge on the kinetics and persistence of the stress response to complex environmental mixtures, on the influence of both physiological and environmental parameters (pH, eutrophication, ellipsis), on the constitutive levels of stress-proteins and on the acquisition of tolerance, is required before one could safely apply stress-proteins to assess on-site pollution. Still, included in a test battery of complementary bioassays, stress protein may be very valuable as tier I biomarkers, i.e. broad response biomarkers that are used for preliminary screening of the environment.

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