Multiple stressor effects on a model soil nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans: Combined effects of the pathogen Klebsiella pneumoniae and zinc oxide nanoparticles

Jarad C. Cochran, Jason M. Unrine, Mark Coyne, Olga V. Tsyusko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research utilizing the model soil nematode Caenorhabditis elegans has revealed that agriculturally relevant nanoparticles (NP), such as zinc oxide NP (ZnONP), cause toxicity at low concentrations and disrupt molecular pathways of pathogen resistance. However, in most nanotoxicity assessments, model organisms are exposed to a single stressor but in nature organisms are affected by multiple sources of stress, including infections, which might exacerbate or mitigate negative effects of NP exposure. Thus, to expand our understanding of the environmental consequences of released NP, this project examined the synergistic/antagonistic effects of ZnONP on C. elegans infected with a common pathogen, Klebsiella pneumoniae. Individual exposures of C. elegans to ZnONP, zinc sulfate (Zn2+ ions) or K. pneumoniae significantly decreased nematode reproduction compared to controls. To assess the combined stress of ZnONP and K. pneumoniae, C. elegans were exposed to equitoxic EC30 concentrations of ZnONP (or Zn ions) and K. pneumoniae. After the combined exposure there was no decrease in reproduction. This complete elimination of reproductive toxicity was unexpected because exposures were conducted at EC30 Zn concentrations and reproductive toxicity due to Zn should have occurred. Amelioration of the pathogen effects by Zn are partially explained by the Zn impact on the K. pneumoniae biofilm. Quantitative assessments showed that external biofilm production and estimated colony forming units (CFU) of K. pneumoniae within the nematodes were significantly decreased. Taken together, our results suggest that during the combined exposure of C. elegans to both stressors Zn in ionic or particulate form inhibits K. pneumoniae ability to colonize nematode's intestine through decreasing pathogen biofilm formation. This highlights the unpredictable nature of combined stressor effects, calling into question the utility of exposures in simplified laboratory media.

Original languageEnglish
Article number161307
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Mar 20 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier B.V.


  • Antagonistic effects
  • Biofilm
  • Internal colonization
  • Multiple stressors
  • Nanomaterials
  • Toxicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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