Ecotoxicology of emerging contaminants and nanomaterials

Logo Laboratorio di ecotossicologia dei contaminanti emergenti e dei nanomateriali

The research group investigates the biological/toxicological responses of terrestrial and aquatic (freshwater and marine) organisms (invertebrates and vertebrates) to natural and anthropogenic impacts of emerging environmental contaminants including nanomaterials. The biological responses are investigated at different levels of biological complexity from the molecule to the cell, from tissue to whole organism. A wide range of biomarkers are applied from the biotransformation/detoxification as phases 0, I, II and III played by ABC transport proteins involved in mechanism of xenobiotic resistance (MXR) and the cytochrome P450 system, to neurotoxicity, genotoxicity, cytotoxicity up to endocrine disruption. An ecosystemic approach that explores ecotoxicological impacts at different levels of biological organization is applied. The approach identifies cellular mechanisms that determine the toxicity of environmental contaminants for biota and contribute to the protection of natural ecosystems subject to human pressure and global changes.

In particular, research is focused on pathways of toxicity of classic contaminants such as trace elements, POPs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), organophoshates (chemical weapons and pesticides) carbamates as well as emerging ones as endocrine disruptors, pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) (i.e. musk fragrances) and most recently nanomaterials. The models used range from primary cultures of terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates to teleost cell lines (i.e. RTG-2, PLHC-1) and whole organisms (terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates and vertebrates) by in vitro, in vivo and in situ studies. Undergoing recent research focuses on developing innovative toxicity tests both in vitro and in vivo to assess exposure and effects of nanoparticles (i.e. n-TiO2) in marine and freshwater species with particular regards to interactions (co-exposure) with other contaminants of known toxicity and mechanism of action (Trojan horse effect).

The scientific fields of interest are

  • Biomonitoring of marine, brackish and river ecosystems by investigating anthropogenic impacts including global changes. Biomonitoring is based on the application of an ecotoxicological integrated approach based on chemical analysis (residues of contaminants) and biological responses (biomarkers) in bioindicator species. Main case studies include harbours and marine coastal areas, industrial sites, chemical warfare agents dumped on seabed, off-shore LNG terminals at sea (LNG), in-shore gas and oil refinery, marine protected areas, marine coastal areas located close to incinerators and sewage treatment plants.
    Main bioindicator species are: the Mediterranean mussel Mytilus galloprovincialis, the sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus, mullet species Mullus barbatus and Mullus surmuletus, Mediterranean sole Solea vulgaris, European sea bass Dicentrarchus labrax and European eel Anguilla anguilla.
    The major emerging contaminants investigated are POPs, PAHs, PCBs, dioxins and furans, PBDEs, flame retardants, trace metals, synthetic musk fragrances, TNT, mustard gas, surfactants including nonylphenol (p-nonylphenol), phthalates, nanomaterials such as metal nanoparticles (titanium dioxide, zero valent iron), polystyrene, carbon nanotubes.
  • Ecotoxicology of nanomaterials and emerging contaminants at the phase 0, I and III of cellular biotransformation in fish immortalized cell lines (PLHC-1, RTG-2). Main investigations are focused on the interaction of MXR and P450 systems with synthetic musk fragrances (musk xylene, musk ketone, tonalide), TNT, n-TiO2 alone and in combination with cadmium and 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) (Trojan horse effect).
  • Standardized ecotoxicological tests (OECD, ASTM, EPA) under the REACH and innovative ones under development using marine invertebrates (Mytilus sp., P. lividus) and teleosts (D. labrax) for assessing acute and chronic toxicity exposure to surfactants, marine sediments and engineered nanomaterials for various applications including drug delivery and remediation of contaminated marine matrices as sediment and sea water (nanoremediation).
  • Mechanisms of absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) of persistent and emerging pollutants including nanomaterials using in vitro and in vivo models. Main investigation are focus on the impact of engineered nanoparticles during sea urchin development (P. lividus).
  • Safety and welfare of farmed fish in aquaculture. The main case studies are toxicological impact of rearing environments in marine fish (i.e. land and in-shore mariculture), quality of the diet (feed), stress from captivity.
  • Evolutionary adaptations at the gene level in response to anthropogenic pressure of physical and chemical nature in both temperate and Antarctic ecosystems. Main case studies are the expression of resistance genes as acetylcholinesterase (AChE) and the over-expression of some ABC transport proteins (ABCB1 encoding for P-glycoprotein, P-gp) in alien species and their potential role in invasiveness.
  • Role of xenobiotics in cell and tissue pathology with particular regard to hormone metabolism and immune response. Main case study concerns the interaction of p-nonylphenol with human reproduction, the production of cytokines in the placenta and the P-glycoprotein (MDR).
Raccolta celomociti dal riccio di mare Paracentrotus lividus


CoNISMa. Consorzio Nazionale Interuniversitario per le Scienze del Mare (Roma) (


National Research Council (CNR)

                - IBIM, Institute of Biomedicine and Molecular Immunology (Palermo) (

                - ISMAR, Institute of Marine Sciences (Genova) (


COISPA, Technology and Research (Bari)


CRIACQ - Centro di ricerche interdipartimentale per la gestione delle risorse idrobiologiche e per l’acquacoltura- Università degli Studi di Napoli “Federico II”


Ispra – Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale (

  • Marine emergency group (sede di Roma)
  • Ecotoxicology and Plankton Biology Lab (sede di Livorno)


Italian Universities: Firenze, Pisa, Genova, La Tuscia, Ca’Foscari Venezia, Second University  of Napoli, Politecnico di Torino, Università di Palermo, Perugia.



NanoSafety Cluster, European Commission, Marine Ecotox Focus Group. (


Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, Pacific Grove, CA (USA). (


Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Laboratory of Cell and Developmental Biology, University of San Diego, La Jolla, CA (USA). (


Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory, Department of Environmental Toxicology and Nutrition, University of California Davis, Bodega Bay, CA (USA) (


Rudjer Boskovic Institute, Division for Marine and Environmental Research, Laboratory for molecular ecotoxicology, Zagabria (Croatia). (


UFZ - Helmholts-Centre for Environmental Research, Department of Bioanalytical Ecotoxicology, Leipzig (Germany). (


University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Department of Biology, Trondheim (Norway). (


Institut Catalan de Nanotecnologia, Inorganic Nanoparticles Laboratory Group, Barcelona (Spain). (


University College Dublin, Center for BioNano Interactions (CBNI), School of Chemitry and Chemical Biology, Dublin (Ireland). (

Current Grants
  • RITMARE. Italian Research for the sea. Flagship project.
    SP2_WP4_AZ3_UO04 . Unit scientific responsible
    Welfare and safety of aquaculture products: set up of a new protocol for the assessment of stress responses includine to chemical contaminants in European sea bass (2012-2015).
  • MIUR PRIN 2009. Marine ecotoxicology of nanomaterials: toxicity and bioaccumulation of nano titaniun dioxide in edible species in the presence of metals and dioxin. Unit coordinator (2011-2013).
  • POR CRO FSE 2007-2013 Asse IV – Capitale Umano. NanoRemEco -Testing Eco-friendly Nanoparticles for sediment and marine waters Remediation (2012-2014).
  • Integrated Ecotoxicological Approach (AEI) for the assessment of marine ecosystem damage caused by the ship Costa Concordia in the Giglio Island of Tuscany Archipelago (in collaboration with ARPAT and Regione Toscana) (2012-2013).
Previous research grants
  • European Commission: 4FP, 5FP (1 programme INTERREG II), 6FP (2 programmes INTERREG III)
  • MIUR: PRIN 2001 (2 programmes), 2003, 2009 (current); FIRB 2003; FISR 2007
  • MIPAF: IV, V e VI Piano Triennale della Pesca e dell’Acquacoltura (Legge 41/82). 2004, 2005 (2 programmes), 2006, 2007.
  • CoNISMa. Afrodite System (2001). SPICAMAR 2001 (Pilot Study for Characterization of Marine Area under Risk)).
  • POR Apulia  2005 Asse IV – Misura 4.13. Sottomisura E “Innovative Action”. BIOTEL, BIOIMPACT.
  • POR Sicily 2000-2006, SFOP-Asse IV, Misura 4.17. Action for fishery and aquaculture sustainability, (SFOP). Sottomisura 4.17b
  • National Research Program in Antarctica (PNRA). 2005.
  • University Research Plan (PAR), University of Siena 2006. Research project.
  • Contract with public and private entities: Tethis S.p.A. 2004, 2012; ARPAT area mare 2005-2006; 2012; ARPACAL 2007; ARSIA 2007; API S.p.A 2007; Scarlino Energia 2010-2011; pH s.r.l. partner di TÜV SÜD (2013).
Methods and facilities
Acquario marino presso la sede di via Mattioli, 4.

Extraction methods: buffer solutions, homogenization of both inorganic and organic materials (liquid N and Potter and Turrax), ultracentrifuge.

Spectrophotometry UV-VIS: hormone and protein quantification and assays (kinetic).

Spettrofluorometry: bile metabolites quantification, cell metabolites and eme synthesis; enzymatic assay with fluorescent probes.

SDS PAGE, western transfer and immunoblotting of heat shock protein (1); ABC transport proteins (abcb and abcc) (2); cytochrome P450 (3).

Molecular techniques: PCR and qPCR for measuring expression of selected genes in different tissues of marine vertebrates and invertebrates and in fish cell lines: CYPs, metallothioneins (MT), ABCs (P-glicoprotein and MRPs).

Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay for hormone steroid in fish blood.

Light microscopy: (1) histopathology of marine fish gonads, gills and liver; (2) neutral red retention time assay (NRRT); (3) micronuclei.

Fluorescent and confocal microscopy: TUNEL-Terminal deoxynucleotidyl Transferase Biotin-dUTP Nick End Labeling ); fluorescent probe assays (DAPI, RhB, Ca-AM).

In vitro cell cultures: fish cell lines (PLHC-1, RTG-2), primary culture of both marine invertebrates and teleosts.

Standardized ecotoxicological assays: spermiotoxicity and embriotoxicity of sea urchin (Paracentrotus lividus) and mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis) and Vibrio fischeri (MICROTOXÒ).


Analytical chemistry: gravimetric determination of the lipid content in biological material; concentration and purification of aqueous matrices and biological extracts by solid phase extraction (SPE); qualitative and quantitative determination by gas chromatography of chlorinated hydrocarbons and non-ionic surfactants in inorganic matrices and biological extracts; high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) for the determination of non-ionic surfactants (Nonylphenol polyethoxylated) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in aqueous and biological matrices. Accelerated extraction in solid phase (Dionex ASE-200) for the analysis of organochlorines and non-ionic surfactants in aqueous and biological matrices.


Extensive experience in maintenance of aquatic and terrestrial species for in vivo testing; also extensive experience in field campaign (fishing and harvesting).


The research unit is equipped with a  flow-through sea water aquarium facility in accordance with ISO 9001 and 14001 for housing and maintenance of marine organisms (invertebrates and vertebrates) equipped with UV lamp, mechanical filter, biological filter and located at the second floor of Via Mattioli, 4.

Most recent papers
Immagine campionamento e dissezione in situ
  1. Della Torre C., Petochi T., Farchi C., Corsi I., Di Nardo M.M., Sammarini V., Alcaro L., Mechelli L., Focardi S., Tursi A., Marino G., Amato E. (2013). Environmental hazard of yperite released at sea: sublethal toxic effects on fish. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 248-249: 246-263.
  2. Matranga V. & Corsi I. (2012). Toxic effects of engineered nanoparticles in the marine environment: model organisms and molecular approaches. Marine Environmental Research, 76: 32-40.
  3. Della Torre C., Zaja R., Loncar J., Smital T., Focardi S. and I. Corsi (2012). Interaction of ABC transport proteins with toxic heavy metals at both gene and efflux activity in the PLHC-1 fish cell line. Chemico-Biological Interactions, 198: 9-17.
  4. Della Torre C., Monti M.L., Focardi S., Corsi I. (2011). Time-dependent modulation of cyp1a gene transcription and EROD activity by musk xylene in PLHC-1 and RTG-2 fish cell lines. Toxicology in vitro, 25: 1575-1580.
  5. Marchi M., Corsi I., Tiezzi E. (2010). Biological invasions and their treat to ecosystems: two way to thermodynamic eutanasia. Ecological Modelling, 221: 882-883.
  6. Zucchi S., Corsi I., Luckenbach T., Bard S.M., Regoli F., Focardi S. (2010). Identification of five partial ABC-transporter genes in the liver of the Antarctic fish Trematomus bernacchii : sensitivity of ABCB1 and ABCC2 to Cd. Environmental Pollution, 158: 2746-2756.
  7. Bechi N., Ietta F., Romagnoli R., Jantra S., Cencini M., Galassi G., Serchi T., Corsi I., Paulesu L., (2010). Environmental levels of para-nonylphenol are able to affect cytokine secretion in human placenta.  Environmental Health Perspectives, 118 (3): 427-431.
  8. Corsi, I., Mariottini M., Badesso, A., Caruso, T., Borghesi N., Bonacci S., Iacocca A,. Focardi S. (2005). Contamination and sub-lethal toxicological effects of persistent organic pollutants in the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) in the Orbetello lagoon (Tuscany, Italy). Hydrobiologia, 550: 237-249.
  9. Focardi, S., Corsi, I., Franchi, E. (2005). Safety and sustainable development of European aquaculture: new tools for an environmentally sound aquaculture. Aquaculture International, 13: 3-17.
  10. Pisoni, M., Cogotzi, L., Frigeri, A., Corsi, I., Bonacci, S., Iacocca, A., Lancini, L., Mastrototaro, F., Focardi, S. and M. Svelto (2004). DNA-adducts, benzo(a)pyrene monooxygenase activity and lysosomal membrane stability in Mytilus galloprovincialis from different areas in Taranto-coastal waters (Italy). Environmental Research, 96: 163-175.

The complete list of publications is available at:
Chief of the research team

Ilaria Corsi (PhD, Adjunct Professor in Ecotoxicology)

NanoSafety Cluster of the European Commission, Chair of the Marine Ecotox Focus Group of NanoSafety Cluster since 2011 (

Research team
  • Camilla Della Torre, PhD, post-doctoral researcher
  • Elena Bocci, PhD, post-doctoral researcher
  • Maria Luisa Vannuccini, PhD student
  • Francesca Cossu, secretary