Gene Expression Analysis of CL-20-Induced Reversible Neurotoxicity Reveals GABAA Receptors as Potential Targets in the Earthworm Eisenia fetida

The earthworm Eisenia fetida is one of the most used species in standardized soil ecotoxicity tests. End points such as survival, growth, and reproduction are eco-toxicologically relevant but provide little mechanistic insight into toxicity pathways, especially at the molecular level. Here we apply a toxicogenomic approach to investigate the mode of action underlying the reversible neurotoxicity of hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane (CL-20), a cyclic nitroamine explosives compound. We developed an E. fetida-specific shotgun microarray targeting 15119 unique E. fetida transcripts. Using this array we profiled gene expression in E. fetida in response to exposure to CL-20. Eighteen earthworms were exposed for 6 days to 0.2 μg/cm2 of CL-20 on filter paper, half of which were allowed to recover in a clean environment for 7 days. Nine vehicle control earthworms were sacrificed at days 6 and 13, separately. Electrophysiological measurements indicated that the conduction velocity of earthworm medial giant nerve fiber decreased significantly after 6-day exposure to CL-20, but was restored after 7 days of recovery. Total RNA was isolated from the four treatment groups including 6-day control, 6-day exposed, 13-day control, and 13-day exposed (i.e., 6-day exposure followed by 7-day recovery), and was hybridized to the 15K shotgun oligo array. Statistical and bioinformatic analyses suggest that CL-20 initiated neurotoxicity by noncompetitively blocking the ligand-gated GABAA receptor ion channel, leading to altered expression of genes involved in GABAergic, cholinergic, and Agrin-MuSK pathways. In the recovery phase, expression of affected genes returned to normality, possibly as a result of autophagy and CL-20 dissociation/metabolism. This study provides significant insights into potential mechanisms of CL-20-induced neurotoxicity and the recovery of earthworms from transient neurotoxicity stress.