Biomarkers and bioassays for detecting dioxin-like compounds in the marine environment. Academic Article uri icon


  • The presence of toxic chemical contaminants in some marine organisms, including those consumed by humans, is well known. Monitoring the levels of such contaminants and their geographic and temporal variability is important for assessing and maintaining the safety of seafood and the health of the marine environment. Chemical analyses are sensitive and specific, but can be expensive and provide little information on the actual or potential biological activity of the contaminants. Biologically-based assays can be used to indicate the presence and potential effects of contaminants in marine animals, and therefore, have potential for routine monitoring of the marine environment. Halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons (HAHs) such as chlorinated dioxins, dibenzofurans, and biphenyls comprise a major group of marine contaminants. The most toxic HAHs (dioxin-like compounds) act through an intracellular receptor protein, the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, which is present in humans and many, but not all, marine animals. A toxic equivalency approach based on an understanding of this mechanism provides an integrated measure of the biological potency or activity of HAH mixtures. Biomarkers measured in marine animals indicate their exposure to these chemicals in vivo. Similarly, in vitro biomarker responses measured in cell culture bioassays can be used to assess the concentration of 'dioxin equivalents' in extracts of environmental matrices. Here, I have reviewed the types and relative sensitivities of mechanistically-based, in vitro bioassays for dioxin-like compounds, including assays of receptor-binding, DNA-binding and transcriptional activation of native (CYP1A) or reporter (luciferase) genes. Examples of their use in environmental monitoring are provided. Cell culture bioassays are rapid and inexpensive, and thus have great potential for routine monitoring of marine resources, including seafood. Several such assays exist, or are being developed, for a variety of marine contaminants in addition to the dioxin-like chemicals. A battery of cell culture bioassays might be used to rapidly and sensitively screen seafood for the presence of contaminants of concern, including dioxin-like compounds as well as other contaminants such as natural toxins, hormonally active agents, and heavy metals. Such a battery of mechanism-based, in vitro bioassays could be incorporated into monitoring efforts under recently adopted hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) programs.

publication date

  • April 22, 2002