Fashion largely determines what is studied in (aquatic) toxicology

Perjantai 18.10.2019 klo 17:37 - Mikko Nikinmaa

I finished as editor-in-chief of Aquatic Toxicology at the end of July after 14 years. During that time, I have handled more than 6000 manuscripts, which makes it possible to evaluate, what the scientists are studying. It also gives an indication about what is funded, since adequate funding is a prerequisite of being able to carry out the research. Overall, I must say that I am disappointed, since it appears that the funders mainly support fashionable topics, and scientists are naturally willing to do what gives them funding. Associated with this is the positive correlation between fashionable topic and the impact factors of journals. If you have many articles in a journal on a fashionable topic, its impact factor increases, even if the real environmental relevance of the work were poor. I present some major problems, which are the result of trying to do fashionable things instead of thinking already at the outset, what the real environmental relevance of the studies is.

First, it seems that using the newest possible methodology enables you to do work, which has little importance, and still get funded. In the past 15 years the -omics methods have increasingly been utilized by environmental toxicologists. Although they give new possibilities, if properly interpreted and utilized, their improper use is common, and many conclusions are faulty. Most studies use a very small number of organisms, typically 3. This is far too small number for any conclusions with natural populations of animals, especially as their environmental responses may involve changes in variability. I suppose everybody accepts that the responses to toxicants depend on the functions of proteins and their disturbances. Yet, most studies forget this, and based on real-time PCR, microarray or RNA-seq data, which show an increase in steady-state mRNA level conclude that the function encoded by the gene studied has increased. However, this need not be so: if the protein activity decreases because of the action of a toxicant, transcription is increased as a compensatory response. Yet, even after the compensatory response, protein activity may be reduced. In fact, some studies have seen this happening, but have not indicated this obvious explanation just being surprised of the finding. While the above concerns the commonly used transcriptomics, one can find problems with proteomics and metabolomics also. Basically, since toxicants can only affect organisms, if they disturb some functions, functional measurements are required. The -omics data help in finding the genes and consecutively functions, which may be affected. The reason why this is seldom done is twofold: functional measurements are time-consuming, and it is hard to make them high-throughput; the methodology is usually classical and does not attract funders as the use of fancy methodology does.

Second, nanotoxicology was in fashion a couple of years back. Between 2010 and 2015 one could publish virtually anything showing that nanomaterials can be toxic. In most cases, the amount of nanomaterial used has little bearing to what the environmental levels are or may be in future. Yet, relating the toxic actions to nanoparticles to their environmental occurrence is virtually undone. I fear that the same is happening with the new fashionable topic: microplastics. Horror stories are told about the effects of microplastics. Yet, virtually nothing is known about the effects of environmentally occurring levels of microplastics on the function of organisms.

Third, climate change and interactions of toxicants with temperature or oxygen level, or other environmental variables has hitherto been understudied. This knowledge gap is presently being filled. However, a significant problem remains, and most studies do not even indicate its existence. The studies are typically short, often 1-20 days, and the temperature, carbon dioxide or oxygen level change are typically imposed with virtually no lag time using values expected to occur a hundred years from now. This means that the stress levels in the studies are completely different from naturally occurring ones.

Finally, we are suffering from the tyranny of the mean. Virtually always a toxicological response is considered to be a change in the mean of a parameter. Changes in variance are virtually never considered as a toxicological endpoint. One is considering the heterogeneity of data only as determining if data transformation is needed for statistical testing. Yet, when I went over many toxicological studies, I observed that in most of them variability changed without a change in mean. In those cases, variability is undoubtedly a more sensitive indicator of a toxicological response than the mean. We have pointed out the possible importance of variability as a toxicological end point (Nikinmaa, M., Anttila, K. Individual variation in aquatic toxicology: not only unwanted noise. Aquatic Toxicology 207, 29-33; open access)

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: nanotoxicology, microplastics, omics

World Scientists' Warning on Climate Emergency

Torstai 1.8.2019 klo 10:38 - William J. Ripple et al.

This is not written by me, but the real writers wanted it to be shared as widely as possible

Mikko Nikinmaa

World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency (Condensed Version) 

William J. Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, xxxx scientist signatories from xxx countries 

We scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any great existential threat. In this paper, we present a suite of graphical vital signs of climate change over the last 40 years. Results show greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, with increasingly damaging effects. With few exceptions, we are largely failing to address this predicament. The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than many scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity. We suggest six critical and interrelated steps that governments and the rest of humanity can take to lessen the worst effects of climate change, covering 1) Energy, 2) Short-lived pollutants, 3) Nature, 4) Food, 5) Economy, and 6) Population. Mitigating and adapting to climate change entails transformations in the ways we govern, manage, feed, and fulfill material and energy requirements. We are encouraged by a recent global surge of concern. Governmental bodies are making climate emergency declarations. The Pope issued an encyclical on climate change. Schoolchildren are striking. Ecocide lawsuits are proceeding in the courts. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change. As scientists, we urge widespread use of our vital signs and anticipate that graphical indicators will better allow policymakers and the public to understand the magnitude of this crisis, track progress, and realign priorities to alleviate climate change. The good news is that such transformative change, with social and ecological justice, promises greater human wellbeing in the long-run than business as usual. We believe that prospects will be greatest if policy makers and the rest of humanity promptly respond to our warning and declaration of a climate emergency, and act to sustain life on planet Earth, our only home.


William J. Ripple email:

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: climate change, environmental economics, population growth

Voluntary actions in conservation - a dream or reality

Torstai 21.6.2018 klo 9:50 - Mikko Nikinmaa

In many cases it is said that environmental actions can be voluntary, that people themselves see if they are required or not. This is wishful thinking. Environmental actions are needed and can be done as long as it is other people doing them, no the persons themselves. Just as an example, a scientific conference of environmental scientists gave a possibility of paying a fee for the carbon footprint caused by travelling to the conference. The fee was at three different levels. Of the environmental scientists only approximately 40 % paid any fee at all, and virtually everyone who paid, paid only the lowest fee, although it was much less than can be estimated to be the environmental cost of travelling. And this was a group of environmental scientists!!!

If the general public is even less concerned about the environment, the noble principle that people voluntarily consider what their actions mean to the environment, and in case they cause deterioration of one aspect, other actions are done to remedy the damage (in another environmental dimension). Consequently, one can probably only get things done by environmental taxes and giving reliefs of them to people, who can demonstrate that they are carrying out environmentally beneficial actions. The taxes are needed, as otherwise people do not take the environment into account. However, probably more can be achieved by having incentives giving a financial benefit for good deeds to the environment.

In view of the above, I bow deep to the individuals who do important deeds to help the environment without expecting anything in return.

Kommentoi kirjoitusta. Avainsanat: environmental pollution, environmental economics, environmenral taxes