The cladoceran Daphnia pulex is well established as a model for ecotoxicology. Here, we show that D. pulex is also useful for investigating the effects of toxins on the heart in situ and the toxic effects in lactose intolerance. The mean heart rate at 10 degrees C was 195.9+/-27.0 beats/min (n=276, range 89.2-249.2, >80% 170-230 beats/min). D. pulex heart responded to caffeine, isoproteronol, adrenaline, propranolol and carbachol in the bathing medium. Lactose (50-200 mM) inhibited the heart rate by 30-100% (K(1/2)=60 mM) and generated severe arrhythmia within 60 min. These effects were fully reversible by 3-4 h. Sucrose (100-200 mM) also inhibited the heart rate, but glucose (100-200 mM) and galactose (100-200 mM) had no effect, suggesting that the inhibition by lactose or sucrose was not simply an osmotic effect. The potent antibiotic ampicillin did not prevent the lactose inhibition, and two diols known to be generated by bacteria under anaerobic conditions were also without effect. The lack of effect of l-ribose (2 mM), a potent inhibitor of beta-galactosidase, supported the hypothesis that lactose and other disaccharides may affect directly ion channels in the heart. The results show that D. pulex is a novel model system for studying effects of agonists and toxins on cell signalling and ion channels in situ.