High-content screening assay for identification of chemicals impacting spontaneous activity in zebrafish embryos

Environ Sci Technol. 2014;48(1):804-10. doi: 10.1021/es404322p. Epub 2013 Dec 24.


Although cell-based assays exist, rapid and cost-efficient high-content screening (HCS) assays within intact organisms are needed to support prioritization for developmental neurotoxicity testing in rodents. During zebrafish embryogenesis, spontaneous tail contractions occur from late-segmentation (∼19 h postfertilization, hpf) through early pharyngula (∼29 hpf) and represent the first sign of locomotion. Using transgenic zebrafish (fli1:egfp) that stably express eGFP beginning at ∼14 hpf, we have developed and optimized a 384-well-based HCS assay that quantifies spontaneous activity within single zebrafish embryos after exposure to test chemicals in a concentration-response format. Following static exposure of one embryo per well from 5 to 25 hpf, automated image acquisition procedures and custom analysis protocols were used to quantify total body area and spontaneous activity in live embryos. Survival and imaging success rates across control plates ranged from 87.5 to 100% and 93.3-100%, respectively. Using our optimized procedures, we screened 16 chemicals within the US EPA's ToxCast Phase-I library, and found that exposure to abamectin and emamectin benzoate-both potent avermectins-abolished spontaneous activity in the absence of gross malformations. Overall, compared to existing locomotion-based zebrafish assays conducted later in development, this method provides a simpler discovery platform for identifying potential developmental neurotoxicants.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Genetically Modified
  • Disaccharides / toxicity
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / drug effects*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / physiology*
  • High-Throughput Screening Assays / methods*
  • Ivermectin / analogs & derivatives
  • Ivermectin / toxicity
  • Neurotoxins / analysis*
  • Neurotoxins / toxicity*
  • Paraoxon / toxicity
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Zebrafish / embryology*


  • Disaccharides
  • Neurotoxins
  • abamectin
  • Ivermectin
  • emamectin
  • Paraoxon