Hormesis provides a generalized quantitative estimate of biological plasticity

  • Edward J. Calabrese
  • Mark P. Mattson


Phenotypic plasticity represents an environmentally-based change in an organism’s observable properties. Since biological plasticity is a fundamental adaptive feature, it has been extensively assessed with respect to its quantitative features and genetic foundations, especially within an ecological evolutionary framework. Toxicological investigations on the dose-response continuum (i.e., very broad dose range) that include documented evidence of the hormetic dose response zone (i.e., responses to doses below the toxicological threshold) can be employed to provide a quantitative estimate of phenotypic plasticity. The low dose hormetic stimulation is an adaptive response that reflects an environmentally-induced altered phenotype and provides a quantitative estimate of biological plasticity. Analysis of nearly 8,000 dose responses within the hormesis database indicates that quantitative features of phenotypic plasticity are highly generalizable, being independent of biological model, endpoint measured and chemical/physical stress inducing agent. The magnitude of phenotype changes indicative of plasticity is modest with maximum responses typically being approximately 30–60% greater than control values. The present findings provide the first quantitative estimates of biological plasticity and its capacity for generalization. Summary This article provides the first quantitative estimate of biological plasticity that may be generalized across plant, microbial, animal systems, and across all levels of biological organization. The quantitative features of plasticity are described by the hormesis dose response model. These findings have important biological, biomedical and evolutionary implications.


Adaptive response Biphasic Hormesis Hormetic Phenotype Plasticity 



Effort sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Air Force Material Command, USAF, under grant number FA9550-07-1-0248. This work was also supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging, NIH. The U.S. Government is authorized to reproduce and distribute for governmental purposes notwithstanding any copyright notation thereon. The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsement, either expressed or implied, of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research or the U.S. Government.


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© US Government 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Department of Environmental Health SciencesUniversity of MassachusettsAmherstUSA
  2. 2.National Institute of Aging Intramural Research ProgramBiomedical Research Center, 5th FloorBaltimoreUSA

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