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Keywords:

  • Dose–response;
  • fitness;
  • hormesis;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • stress response

Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 1435–1447

Abstract

There is increasing evidence that some non-essential substances or environmental stressors can have stimulatory or beneficial effects at low exposure levels while being toxic at higher levels, and that environmental ‘priming’ of certain physiological processes can result in their improved functioning in later life. These kinds of nonlinear dose–response relationships are referred to as hormetic responses and have been described across a wide range of organisms (from bacteria to vertebrates), in response to exposure to at least 1000 different chemical and environmental stressors. Although most work in this area has been in the fields of toxicology and human health, the concept of hormesis also has general applicability in ecology and evolutionary biology as it provides an important conceptual link between environmental conditions and organism function – both at the time of initial exposure to stressors and later in life. In this review, we discuss and clarify the different ways in which the term hormesis is used and provide a framework that we hope will be useful for ecologists interested in the fitness consequences of exposure to stressors. By using ecologically relevant examples from the existing literature, we show that hormesis is connected with both acclimation and phenotypic plasticity, and may play an important role in allowing animals to adjust to changing environments.