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Ecotoxicological assessment of antibiotics: A call for improved consideration of microorganisms

Review article
Authors K. K. Brandt
A. Amézquita
Thomas Backhaus
A. Boxall
A. Coors
T. Heberer
J. R. Lawrence
J. Lazorchak
J. Schönfeld
J. R. Snape
Y. G. Zhu
E. Topp
Published in Environment International
Volume 85
Pages 189-205
ISSN 0160-4120
Publisher Elsevier Ltd
Publication year 2015
Published at Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Pages 189-205
Language en
Keywords Antimicrobials, Ecosystem services, Ecotoxicology, Environmental risk assessment, Microbial ecology, Pharmaceuticals, Agriculture, Antibiotics, Aquatic ecosystems, Drug products, Ecology, Environmental impact, Microbiology, Microorganisms, Risk assessment, Eco-toxicology, Ecosystems, antibiotic agent, ribosome RNA, ecosystem service, environmental fate, environmental risk, microbial community, microorganism, species diversity, antibiotic resistance, environmental protection, enzyme activity, fatty acid analysis, human activities, inhibitory concentration, microbial diversity, microbial growth, microbial respiration, nonhuman, pollution monitoring, priority journal, Review, Animalia, Bacteria (microorganisms)
Subject categories Toxicology, Ecology


Antibiotics play a pivotal role in the management of infectious disease in humans, companion animals, livestock, and aquaculture operations at a global scale. Antibiotics are produced, consumed, and released into the environment at an unprecedented scale causing concern that the presence of antibiotic residues may adversely impact aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Herewe critically review the ecotoxicological assessment of antibiotics as related to environmental risk assessment (ERA). We initially discuss the need for more specific protection goals based on the ecosystem service concept, and suggest that the ERA of antibiotics, through the application of a mode of toxic action approach, should make more use of ecotoxicological endpoints targeting microorganisms (especially bacteria) and microbial communities. Key ecosystem services provided by microorganisms and associated ecosystem service-providing units (e.g. taxa or functional groups) are identified. Approaches currently available for elucidating ecotoxicological effects on microorganisms are reviewed in detail and we conclude that microbial community-based tests should be used to complement single-species tests to offer more targeted protection of key ecosystem services. Specifically, we propose that ecotoxicological tests should not only assess microbial community function, but also microbial diversity ('species' richness) and antibiotic susceptibility. Promising areas for future basic and applied research of relevance to ERA are highlighted throughout the text. In this regard, the most fundamental knowledge gaps probably relate to our rudimentary understanding of the ecological roles of antibiotics in nature and possible adverse effects of environmental pollution with subinhibitory levels of antibiotics. © 2015 Elsevier Ltd.

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