Caenorhabditis elegans, a Biological Model for Research in Toxicology

Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 2016;237:1-35. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-23573-8_1.


Caenorhabditis elegans is a nematode of microscopic size which, due to its biological characteristics, has been used since the 1970s as a model for research in molecular biology, medicine, pharmacology, and toxicology. It was the first animal whose genome was completely sequenced and has played a key role in the understanding of apoptosis and RNA interference. The transparency of its body, short lifespan, ability to self-fertilize and ease of culture are advantages that make it ideal as a model in toxicology. Due to the fact that some of its biochemical pathways are similar to those of humans, it has been employed in research in several fields. C. elegans' use as a biological model in environmental toxicological assessments allows the determination of multiple endpoints. Some of these utilize the effects on the biological functions of the nematode and others use molecular markers. Endpoints such as lethality, growth, reproduction, and locomotion are the most studied, and usually employ the wild type Bristol N2 strain. Other endpoints use reporter genes, such as green fluorescence protein, driven by regulatory sequences from other genes related to different mechanisms of toxicity, such as heat shock, oxidative stress, CYP system, and metallothioneins among others, allowing the study of gene expression in a manner both rapid and easy. These transgenic strains of C. elegans represent a powerful tool to assess toxicity pathways for mixtures and environmental samples, and their numbers are growing in diversity and selectivity. However, other molecular biology techniques, including DNA microarrays and MicroRNAs have been explored to assess the effects of different toxicants and samples. C. elegans has allowed the assessment of neurotoxic effects for heavy metals and pesticides, among those more frequently studied, as the nematode has a very well defined nervous system. More recently, nanoparticles are emergent pollutants whose toxicity can be explored using this nematode. Overall, almost every type of known toxicant has been tested with this animal model. In the near future, the available knowledge on the life cycle of C. elegans should allow more studies on reproduction and transgenerational toxicity for newly developed chemicals and materials, facilitating their introduction in the market. The great diversity of endpoints and possibilities of this animal makes it an easy first-choice for rapid toxicity screening or to detail signaling pathways involved in mechanisms of toxicity.

Keywords: Biological model; Nematode; Pollutants; Reproduction; Transgenic strains.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / drug effects*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / physiology
  • Models, Biological*
  • Toxicology / methods*