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Neonicotinoid insecticides exert diverse cytotoxic and genotoxic effects on cultivated sunflower

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Contamination with neonicotinoids is a global problem affecting environment and target and non-target organisms including plants. The present study explored the potential genotoxic and cytotoxic effects of the insecticides Actara 25 WD and Nuprid 200 SL containing the active substances thiamethoxam (TMX) and imidacloprid (IMI), respectively, on cultivated sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.). The half maximal effective concentration (½EC50) of the tested substances was calculated using a dose-response inhibition analysis of the growth of plant roots relative to the corresponding controls. Application of approximately ½EC50 or higher TMX doses significantly increased the antioxidant activity in sunflower leaves, whereas IMI led to a significant decrease in root antioxidant capacity, indicating organ-specific insecticide effects on sunflower plants. Even low doses (½EC50) of the studied neonicotinoids led to irregularities in mitotic phases and abnormalities in the cytokinesis and chromosome segregation, such as bridges, laggards, stickiness, and C-mitosis. Genotoxic effects manifested by a dose-independent induction of primary DNA damages and retrotransposon dynamics were also observed. The used set of physiological, biochemical, and genetic traits provides new information about the organ-specific effects of neonicotinoids in sunflower plants and elaborates on the complexity of mechanisms underpinning these effects that include DNA damages, cytokinesis defects, and genome instability.

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The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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This research was undertaken within the framework of the COST action CA16212, Impact of Nuclear Domains on Gene Expression and Plant Traits (INDEPTH), supported by COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology).


This study was partially supported by the National Science Program “Environmental Protection and Reduction of Risks of Adverse Events and Natural Disasters,” approved by the Resolution of the Council of Ministers № 577/17.08.2018 and supported by the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) of Bulgaria (Agreement No D01-322/18.12.2019).

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Mariyana Georgieva: Conceptualization, methodology, validation, formal analysis, investigation, writing - original draft, visualization. Georgi Bonchev: Methodology, formal analysis, writing - review and editing, resources. Grigor Zehirov: Investigation, formal analysis, validation. Vesela Vasileva: Investigation,validation. Valya Vassileva: Conceptualization, resources, writing - review and editing, supervision, project administration, funding acquisition

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Correspondence to Valya Vassileva.

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All authors have consented to the submission of the manuscript to Environmental Science and Pollution Research. The manuscript content has been approved by all co-authors and by the authorities at the Institute of Plant Physiology and Genetics, where the work has been carried out.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Responsible Editor: Gangrong Shi

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• Neonicotinoid insecticides inhibit root growth in cultivated sunflower.

• Neonicotinoids do not damage cell membranes.

• Neonicotinoids provoke organ-specific antioxidant responses.

• Neonicotinoids exert dose-independent DNA damages and higher transposon dynamics

• Neonicotinoid insecticides affect chromosome segregation and cytokinesis.

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Georgieva, M., Bonchev, G., Zehirov, G. et al. Neonicotinoid insecticides exert diverse cytotoxic and genotoxic effects on cultivated sunflower. Environ Sci Pollut Res 28, 53193–53207 (2021).

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