To determine whether development of ventilatory control in zebrafish (Danio rerio) exhibits plasticity, embryos were exposed to hypoxia, hyperoxia or hypercapnia for the first 7 days post-fertilization. Their acute reflex breathing responses to ventilatory stimuli (hypoxia, hypercapnia and external cyanide) were assessed when they had reached maturity (3 months or older). Zebrafish reared under hyperoxic conditions exhibited significantly higher breathing frequencies at rest (283+/-27min(-1) versus 212+/-16min(-1) in control fish); breathing frequency was unaffected in adult fish subjected to hyperoxia for 7 days. The respiratory responses of fish reared in hyperoxic water to acute hypoxia, hypercapnia or external cyanide were blunted (hypoxia, cyanide) or eliminated (hypercapnia). Adult fish exposed for 7 days to hyperoxia showed no change in acute responses to these stimuli. The respiratory responses to acute hypoxia, hypercapnia or external cyanide of fish reared under hypoxic or hypercapnic conditions were similar to those in fish reared under normal conditions. A subset of all fish examined exhibited episodic breathing; an analysis of breathing patterns demonstrated that fish reared under hypercapnic conditions had an increased tendency to display episodic breathing. The results of this study reveal that there is flexibility in the design and functioning of the embryonic or larval respiratory system in zebrafish.