SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
15 December 2016
Volume 17 Issue 12

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SETAC and iEOS Held First Joint Focused Topic Meeting on Environmental and (Eco)toxicological -Omics and Epigenetics: Science, Technology and Regulatory Applications

Jana Asselman and Karel De Schamphelaere, Ghent University; Michael Eckerstorfer, Austrian Environment Agency; and Stuart Marshall, Unilever, UK

SETAC/iEOS FTMFor the first time, SETAC and the UK Environmental Omics Synthesis Center (iEOS) organized a joint focused topic meeting on environmental and (eco)toxicological -omics and epigenetics. The meeting was held in Ghent, Belgium, from 12–15 September. The meeting brought together more than 120 participants from across the globe, an interdisciplinary mix of scientists from different fields of research, including representatives from business, academia and government.

The meeting was divided into two parts. The first two days focused on introducing participants to different types of -omics research and covered three sessions: microbial genomics and metagenomics, ecological and evolutionary -omics, and (eco)toxicological -omics. The first part closely followed the concept and structure of previous iEOS meetings with a renowned invited speaker introducing each session, followed by presentations of recent and ongoing research. Participants were introduced to a wide diversity of -omics research, varying from the role of gut microbiomes in environmental stress response, the function of gene networks in field realistic exposures, and the overall role of genomics and big data in adverse outcome pathways and big data analysis. The presented topics are clearly of high interest within the SETAC community given the upcoming Pellston Workshop® on Adverse Outcome Pathways and proposed sessions on -omics at the upcoming SETAC Europe 27th Annual Meeting, which will be held from 7–11 May in Brussels, Belgium. You can also view session recordings on -omics and epigenetics from the 7th SETAC World Congress/SETAC North America 37th Annual Meeting, which was held in November in Orlando, Florida.

SETAC World Congress Session Recordings
View session recordings on -omics and epigenetics from the SETAC World Congress in Orlando.

The second two days focused on epigenetics, in particular as an emerging field of research and its potential relevance for environmental science and ecotoxicology. The second part followed the format of SETAC Europe Special Science Symposia, with time slots reserved for plenary discussion and debate. It consisted of two sessions with platform presentations on the science and technology of epigenetics and the transgenerational effects of chemicals, followed by a panel debate on epigenetics in risk assessment based on introductory perspectives from business, academia and government. The platform presentations in these sessions highlighted the diversity in interactions between the environment and epigenetic mechanisms. In particular, participants extensively discussed the effects of chemicals and radiation on epigenetic regulation networks in various organisms, including mammals, fish, invertebrates and plants, over multiple generations. The second part concluded with a panel debate featuring representatives from government, business and academia in addition to the invited keynote speakers of the epigenetics sessions of the symposium. In parallel to the panel debate, two training workshops were organized on -omics and epigenomics applications. The first workshop focused on the integration of multi-level -omics data analysis for the prediction of phenotypic outcomes. Participants were introduced to potential integrative strategies, experimental designs and statistical training. The second workshop focused on epigenomics. Here, participants learned to design their own experiments, with a consideration for non-model organisms, and were introduced to different types of technologies and analysis of respective epigenomics data using R software tools.

During the meeting, compelling evidence was presented, addressing transgenerational effects, differential methylation and changes in DNA methyltransferases in response to environmental stress, underpinning the relevance of epigenetic regulation as it regards to environmental risk assessment. The panel debated on how to best give regulators and the public the confidence that epigenetic and transgenerational effects are not being overlooked nor disregarded. The discussion remains whether there is sufficient evidence to move into a precautionary approach. Yet, the speakers remarked that many standard ecotoxicology model organisms are often not ideal for epigenetic studies and that extrapolation may not be possible. During the panel debate, an overview of the ongoing European Centre for Ecotoxicology and Toxicology of Chemistry (ECETOC) work addressing epigenetic effects was given, which led to the question how current regulatory approaches can be adapted to derive optimum value from -omics and epigenetics data. The panel members also noted a discrepancy between ecotoxicology and human toxicology. While more mechanistic frameworks such as adverse outcome pathways are moving into ecotoxicology and environmental risk assessment, mechanistic approaches are currently not routinely used in human toxicology. However, in human toxicology, a wide body of literature is available on epigenetic effects, which should be further addressed by focused research in a regulatory context. However, it is not clear whether the same can be said for ecotoxicology. Regardless, the key message remains that focused research with regards to specific issues relevant for regulation is urgently needed (e.g., what is an unstressed or normal epigenome, what are the short and long-term consequences of epigenetic changes). Another challenge is that causality and specificity of epigenetic effects still need to be clearly shown with robust data. Indeed, at present, studies on epigenetic changes rarely address potential adverse outcomes at the organismal level. Yet, to include epigenetic effects in risk assessment and regulation, clear causal links between epigenetic changes and adverse outcomes need to be established. Prior to questions from the audience, the panel debate concluded that research on and evidence of epigenetic effects is only relevant when environmentally realistic exposure concentrations are considered.

Overall, the answers to the questions of the audience and the biggest priorities for the panel members can be summarized as follows:

  • Coordinated programs or frameworks are necessary to rationalize and standardize methodologies
  • A solid evidence base and clear proof-of-principles are crucial to promote regulatory action
  • Epigenetic effects at a molecular level need to be clearly linked to ecologically relevant effect at higher organismal levels
  • Detailed reviews of the available evidence on their epigenetic effects of chemicals are needed, with a view to establish explicit test systems addressing epigenetic modes of action within a regulatory context and the required knowledge on the natural variation of epigenetic changes within these systems

In conclusion, the meeting highlighted the importance of epigenetic effects and the need for further focused research in ecotoxicology and risk assessment. The high participation of the meeting underlined the growing interest in this topic of the scientific and overall SETAC communities, including business and government.

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