Toxicity profiling of marine surface sediments: A case study using rapid screening bioassays of exhaustive total extracts, elutriates and passive sampler extracts

A. Dick Vethaak*, Timo Hamers, Concepción Martínez-Gómez, Jorke H. Kamstra, Jasperien de Weert, Pim E.G. Leonards, Foppe Smedes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This study was carried out in the framework of the ICON project (Integrated Assessment of Contaminant Impacts on the North Sea) (Hylland et al., 2015) and aimed (1) to evaluate the toxicity of marine sediments using a battery of rapid toxicity bioassays, and; (2) to explore the applicability and data interpretation of in vitro toxicity profiling of sediment extracts obtained from ex situ passive sampling. Sediment samples were collected at 12 selected (estuarine, coastal, offshore) sites in the North Sea, Icelandic waters (as reference sites), south-western Baltic Sea and western Mediterranean during autumn 2008. Organic extracts using a mild non-destructive clean-up procedure were prepared from total sediment and silicone passive samplers and tested with five in vitro bioassays: DR-Luc bioassay, ER-Luc bioassay, AR-EcoScreen bioassay, transthyretin (TTR) binding assay, and Vibrio fischeri bioluminescence bioassay. In vitro toxicity profiling of total sediment and silicone passive sampler extracts showed the presence of multiple organic contaminations by arylhydrocarbon receptor agonists (e.g. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and endocrine-active compounds, as well as non-specific toxicity caused by organic contaminants, at virtually all sampling sites. In vitro responses to total sediment extracts from coastal/estuarine sites were significantly different from those in offshore sites (p < 0.05). Several bioassays of passive sampler extracts showed highest activity in some offshore sediment samples. Impact on embryogenesis success and larval growth in undiluted sediment elutriates was shown at some sites using the in vivo sea urchin embryo test. The observed toxicity profiles could only partially be explained by the chemical target analysis, indicating the presence of unknown or unanalysed biologically-active compounds in the sediments. In vitro bioassay testing with silicone passive sampler extracts of sediments is a promising tool to assess the toxic potency of the bioavailable fraction of hydrophobic sediment contaminants, but further work will be needed before it can be routinely applied for sediment quality assessment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)81-91
Number of pages11
JournalMarine Environmental Research
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


  • In vitro bioassay
  • Larval bioassay
  • Passive sampling
  • Sediment elutriates
  • Sediment extracts
  • Sediment pollution
  • Sediment toxicity
  • Toxicity profiling


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