An Approach to Evaluation of the Effect of Bioremediation on Biological Activity of Environmental Contaminants: Dechlorination of Polychlorinated Biphenyls

Article excerpt

The effectiveness of bioremediation efforts is assessed traditionally from the loss of the chemical of interest. In some cases, analytical techniques are coupled with evaluation of toxicity to organisms representative of those found in the affected environment or surrogate organisms. Little is known, however, about the effect of remediation of environmental chemicals on potential toxicity to mammalian organisms. We discuss both an approach that employs mammalian cell system bioassays and the criteria for selection of the assays. This approach has been used to evaluate the biological response to mixtures of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) before and after remediation by reductive dechlorination. The dechlorination process used results in accumulation of congeners substituted in only the ortho and para positions and containing fewer chlorines than the starting mixtures. Evaluation of the dechlorinated mixture reveals a loss of biological activity that could be ascribed to coplanar PCBs not containing chlorine in the ortho positions. Conversely, biological activity associated with ortho-substituted PCB congeners is unaffected or increased by remediation. Thus, the results of the bioassays are consistent with the remediation-induced change in the profile of PCB congeners and the known mechanisms of action of PCBs. The results emphasize a need for evaluation of the products of remediation for biological activity in mammalian systems. Furthermore, the approach outlined demonstrates the potential to assess the impact of remediation on a range of biological activities in mammalian cells and thus to estimate positive and negative effects of remediation strategies on toxicity. Future needs in this area of research include assays to evaluate biological effects under conditions of exposure that mimic those found in the environment and models to extrapolate effects to assess risk to people and wildlife. Key words: bioassay, cytochrome P450, dechlorination, insulin, in vitro fertilization, neutrophil, PCB, transcription, uterine contraction. doi:10.1289/ehp.6935 available via[Online 9 December 2004]


Biological remediation technologies offer the advantage of partial or complete destruction of contaminants within a site. The ultimate goal of remediation is conversion of toxic organic contaminants to simple, less-toxic constituents, although for some chemicals, incomplete conversion occurs and stable intermediates are formed. The effectiveness of remediation strategies is traditionally evaluated from the disappearance of the chemical of interest. This approach does not consider that end products or intermediates produced during remediation may be toxic. Furthermore, the potential exists that remediation may result in products for which the toxic response is greater than for the parent compound or for which the target of toxicity is different, and these possibilities would not be detected. Accordingly, from the standpoint of assessing risk, it is important to understand the biological activity or toxicity of the end products and stable intermediates. Thus, the question becomes, Are the products or intermediates of bioremediation less toxic than the starting materials?

The anticipated answer to this question is yes; however, there is a dearth of evidence to support this assumption, particularly with respect to effects on mammalian systems. There are some reports of decreased toxic effects after remediation of contaminants, using mammalian systems to evaluate toxicity (Mousa et al. 1996, 1998; Quensen et al. 1998). On the other hand, some evidence suggests that products formed during remediation or breakdown of environmental chemicals have greater biological activity than the starting materials. For example, DDE [1,1-dichloro-2,2-bis(p-chlorophenyl)ethylene], a major environmental transformation product of DDT [1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-bis(p-chlorophenyl) ethane], is a more potent androgen receptor antagonist than its parent compound (Kelce et al. …