Evolutionary conservation of human drug targets in organisms used for environmental risk assessments

Environ Sci Technol. 2008 Aug 1;42(15):5807-13. doi: 10.1021/es8005173.


Pharmaceuticals are typically found in very low concentrations in the aquatic environment. Accordingly, environmental effects clearly assigned to residual drugs are consistent with high affinity interactions with conserved targets in affected wildlife species rather than with a general toxic effect. Thus, evolutionarily well-conserved targets in a given species are associated with an increased risk. In this study orthologs for 1318 human drug targets were predicted in 16 species of which several are relevant for ecotoxicity testing. The conservation of different functional categories of targets was also analyzed. Zebrafish had orthologs to 86% of the drug targets while only 61% were conserved in Daphnia and 35% in green alga. The predicted presence and absence of orthologs agrees well with published experimental data on the potential for specific drug target interaction in various species. Based on the conservation of targets we propose that aquatic environmental risk assessments for human drugs should always include comprehensive studies on aquatic vertebrates. Furthermore, individual targets, especially enzymes, are well conserved suggesting that tests on evolutionarily distant organisms would be highly relevant for certain drugs. We propose that the results can guide environmental risk assessments by improving the possibilities to identify species sensitive to certain types of pharmaceuticals or to other contaminants that act through well defined mechanisms of action. Moreover, we suggest that the results can be used to interpret the relevance of existing ecotoxicity data.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Chlorophyta / drug effects
  • Chlorophyta / metabolism
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions*
  • Ecotoxicology / methods*
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Environmental Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Risk Assessment
  • Species Specificity
  • Time Factors
  • Yeasts / drug effects
  • Yeasts / metabolism


  • Environmental Pollutants