Immunotoxic effects of environmental toxicants in fish - how to assess them?
Numerous environmental chemicals, both long-known toxicants such as persistent organic pollutants as well as emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, are known to modulate immune parameters of wildlife species, what can have adverse consequences for the fitness of individuals including their capability to resist pathogen infections. Despite frequent field observations of impaired immunocompetence and increased disease incidence in contaminant-exposed wildlife populations, the potential relevance of immunotoxic effects for the ecological impact of chemicals is rarely considered in ecotoxicological risk assessment. A limiting factor in the assessment of immunotoxic effects might be the complexity of the immune system what makes it difficult (1) to select appropriate exposure and effect parameters out of the many immune parameters which could be measured, and (2) to evaluate the significance of the selected parameters for the overall fitness and immunocompetence of the organism. Here, we present - on the example of teleost fishes - a brief discussion of how to assess chemical impact on the immune system using parameters at different levels of complexity and integration: immune mediators, humoral immune effectors, cellular immune defenses, macroscopical and microscopical responses of lymphoid tissues and organs, and host resistance to pathogens. Importantly, adverse effects of chemicals on immunocompetence may be detectable only after immune system activation, e.g., after pathogen challenge, but not in the resting immune system of non-infected fish. Current limitations to further development and implementation of immunotoxicity assays and parameters in ecotoxicological risk assessment are not primarily due to technological constraints, but are related from insufficient knowledge of (1) possible modes of action in the immune system, (2) the importance of intra- and inter-species immune system variability for the response against chemical stressors, and (3) deficits in conceptual and mechanistic assessment of combination effects of chemicals and pathogens.