The Hormetic Zone: An Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective Based upon Habitat Characteristics and Fitness Selection Academic Article uri icon


  • Fitness varies nonlinearly with environmental variables such as temperature, water availability, and nutrition, with maximum fitness at intermediate levels between more stressful extremes. For environmental agents that are highly toxic at exposures that substantially exceed background levels, fitness is maximized at concentrations near zero--a phenomenon often referred to as hormesis. Two main components are suggested: (1) background hormesis, which derives from the direct adaptation of organisms to their habitats; and (2) stress-derived hormonesis, which derives from metabolic reserves that are maintained as an adaptation to environmental stresses through evolutionary time. These reserves provide protection from lesser correlated stresses. This article discusses illustrative examples, including ethanol and ionizing radiation, aimed at placing hormesis into an ecological and evolutionary context. A unifying approach comes from fitness-stress continua that underlie responses to abiotic variables, whereby selection for maximum metabolic efficiency and hence fitness in adaptation to habitats in nature underlies hormetic zones. Within this reductionist model, more specific metabolic mechanisms to explain hormesis are beginning to emerge, depending upon the agent and the taxon in question. Some limited research possibilities based upon this evolutionary perspective are indicated.

publication date

  • December 2001