Background: Explosive compounds such as TNT and RDX are recalcitrant contaminants often found co-existing in the environment. In order to understand the joint effects of TNT and RDX on earthworms, an important ecological and bioindicator species at the molecular level, we sampled worms (Eisenia fetida) exposed singly or jointly to TNT (50 mg/kg soil) and RDX (30 mg/kg soil) for 28 days and profiled gene expression in an interwoven loop designed microarray experiment using a 4k-cDNA array. Lethality, growth and reproductive endpoints were measured. Results: Sublethal doses of TNT and RDX had no significant effects on the survival and growth of earthworms, but significantly reduced cocoon and juvenile counts. The mixture exhibited more pronounced reproductive toxicity than each single compound, suggesting an additive interaction between the two compounds. In comparison with the controls, we identified 321 differentially expressed transcripts in TNT treated worms, 32 in RDX treated worms, and only 6 in mixture treated worms. Of the 329 unique differentially expressed transcripts, 294 were affected only by TNT, 24 were common to both TNT and RDX treatments, and 3 were common to all treatments. The reduced effects on gene expression in the mixture exposure suggest that RDX might interact in an antagonistic manner with TNT at the gene expression level. The disagreement between gene expression and reproduction results may be attributed to sampling time, absence of known reproduction-related genes, and lack of functional information for many differentially expressed transcripts. A gene potentially related to reproduction (echinonectin) was significantly depressed in TNT or RDX exposed worms and may be linked to reduced fecundity. Conclusions: Sublethal doses of TNT and RDX affected many biological pathways from innate immune response to oogenesis, leading to reduced reproduction without affecting survival and growth. A complex interaction between mixtures of RDX and TNT was observed at the gene expression level that requires further study of the dynamics of gene expression and reproductive activities in E. fetida. These efforts will be essential to gain an understanding of the additive reproductive toxicity between RDX and TNT.
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