Energy balance is a fundamental requirement of stress adaptation and tolerance. We explore the links between metabolism, energy balance and stress tolerance using aquatic invertebrates as an example and demonstrate that using key parameters of energy balance (aerobic scope for growth, reproduction and activity; tissue energy status; metabolic rate depression; and compensatory onset of anaerobiosis) can assist in integrating the effects of multiple stressors and their interactions and in predicting the whole-organism and population-level consequences of environmental stress. We argue that limitations of both the amount of available energy and the rates of its acquisition and metabolic conversions result in trade-offs between basal maintenance of a stressed organism and energy costs of fitness-related functions such as reproduction, development and growth and can set limit to the tolerance of a broad range of environmental stressors. The degree of stress-induced disturbance of energy balance delineates transition from moderate stress compatible with population persistence (pejus range) to extreme stress where only time-limited existence is possible (pessimum range). It also determines the predominant adaptive strategy of metabolic responses (energy compensation vs. conservation) that allows an organism to survive the disturbance. We propose that energy-related biomarkers can be used to determine the conditions when these metabolic transitions occur and thus predict ecological consequences of stress exposures. Bioenergetic considerations can also provide common denominator for integrating stress responses and predicting tolerance limits under the environmentally realistic scenarios when multiple and often variable stressors act simultaneously on an organism. Determination of bioenergetic sustainability at the organism's level (or lack thereof) has practical implications. It can help identify the habitats and/or conditions where a population can survive (even if at the cost of reduced reproduction and growth) and those that are incapable of supporting viable populations. Such an approach will assist in explaining and predicting the species' distribution limits in the face of the environmental change and informing the conservation efforts and resource management practices.
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