, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 607–624 | Cite as

Epigenetics and its implications for ecotoxicology

  • Michiel B. Vandegehuchte
  • Colin R. Janssen

Epigenetics is the study of mitotically or meiotically heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the DNA sequence. Interestingly, epigenetic changes can be triggered by environmental factors. Environmental exposure to e.g. metals, persistent organic pollutants or endocrine disrupting chemicals has been shown to modulate epigenetic marks, not only in mammalian cells or rodents, but also in environmentally relevant species such as fish or water fleas. The associated changes in gene expression often lead to modifications in the affected organism’s phenotype. Epigenetic changes can in some cases be transferred to subsequent generations, even when these generations are no longer exposed to the external factor which induced the epigenetic change, as observed in a study with fungicide exposed rats. The possibility of this phenomenon in other species was demonstrated in water fleas exposed to the epigenetic drug 5-azacytidine. This way, populations can experience the effects of their ancestors’ exposure to chemicals, which has implications for environmental risk assessment. More basic research is needed to assess the potential phenotypic and population-level effects of epigenetic modifications in different species and to evaluate the persistence of chemical exposure-induced epigenetic effects in multiple subsequent generations.


DNA methylation Transgenerational effects Invertebrates Environmental toxicology 



The authors wish to thank two anonymous reviewers and the editor dr. Richard Handy for their constructive comments which improved the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Aquatic EcologyGhent University (UGent)GhentBelgium

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