In vitro or not in vitro: a short journey through a long history

Environ Sci Eur. 2018;30(1):23. doi: 10.1186/s12302-018-0151-3. Epub 2018 Jun 26.


The aim of ecotoxicology is to study toxic effects on constituents of ecosystems, with the protection goal being populations and communities rather than individual organisms. In this ecosystem perspective, the use of in vitro methodologies measuring cellular and subcellular endpoints at a first glance appears to be odd. Nevertheless, more recently in vitro approaches gained momentum in ecotoxicology. In this article, we will discuss important application domains of in vitro methods in ecotoxicology. One area is the use of in vitro assays to replace, reduce, and refine (3R) in vivo tests. Research in this field has focused mainly on the use of in vitro cytotoxicity assays with fish cells as non-animal alternative to the in vivo lethality test with fish and on in vitro biotransformation assays as part of an alternative testing strategy for bioaccumulation testing with fish. Lessons learned from this research include the importance of a critical evaluation of the sensitivity, specificity and exposure conditions of in vitro assays, as well as the availability of appropriate in vitro-in vivo extrapolation models. In addition to this classical 3R application, other application domains of in vitro assays in ecotoxicology include the screening and prioritization of chemical hazards, the categorization of chemicals according to their modes of action and the provision of mechanistic information for the pathway-based prediction of adverse outcomes. The applications discussed in this essay may highlight the potential of in vitro technologies to enhance the environmental hazard assessment of single chemicals and complex mixtures at a reduced need of animal testing.

Keywords: Bioaccumulation; Biotransformation; Cytotoxicity; Hazard profiling; High-throughput; In vivo; Prioritization; Risk assessment; Screening; Toxicity pathways.

Publication types

  • Review