Copper induces expression and methylation changes of early development genes in Crassostrea gigas embryos

Aquat Toxicol. 2018 Mar:196:70-78. doi: 10.1016/j.aquatox.2018.01.001. Epub 2018 Jan 3.


Copper contamination is widespread along coastal areas and exerts adverse effects on marine organisms such as mollusks. In the Pacific oyster, copper induces severe developmental abnormalities during early life stages; however, the underlying molecular mechanisms are largely unknown. This study aims to better understand whether the embryotoxic effects of copper in Crassostrea gigas could be mediated by alterations in gene expression, and the putative role of DNA methylation, which is known to contribute to gene regulation in early embryo development. For that purpose, oyster embryos were exposed to 4 nominal copper concentrations (0.1, 1, 10 and 20 μg L-1 Cu2+) during early development assays. Embryotoxicity was monitored through the oyster embryo-larval bioassay at the D-larva stage 24 h post fertilization (hpf) and genotoxicity at gastrulation 7 hpf. In parallel, the relative expression of 15 genes encoding putative homeotic, biomineralization and DNA methylation proteins was measured at three developmental stages (3 hpf morula stage, 7 hpf gastrula stage, 24 hpf D-larvae stage) using RT-qPCR. Global DNA content in methylcytosine and hydroxymethylcytosine were measured by HPLC and gene-specific DNA methylation levels were monitored using MeDIP-qPCR. A significant increase in larval abnormalities was observed from copper concentrations of 10 μg L-1, while significant genotoxic effects were detected at 1 μg L-1 and above. All the selected genes presented a stage-dependent expression pattern, which was impaired for some homeobox and DNA methylation genes (Notochord, HOXA1, HOX2, Lox5, DNMT3b and CXXC-1) after copper exposure. While global DNA methylation (5-methylcytosine) at gastrula stage didn't show significant changes between experimental conditions, 5-hydroxymethylcytosine, its degradation product, decreased upon copper treatment. The DNA methylation of exons and the transcript levels were correlated in control samples for HOXA1 but such a correlation was diminished following copper exposure. The methylation level of some specific gene regions (HoxA1, Hox2, Engrailed2 and Notochord) displayed changes upon copper exposure. Such changes were gene and exon-specific and no obvious global trends could be identified. Our study suggests that the embryotoxic effects of copper in oysters could involve homeotic gene expression impairment possibly by changing DNA methylation levels.

Keywords: Copper; DNA methylation; Embryotoxicity; Gene expression; Oyster.

MeSH terms

  • 5-Methylcytosine / analogs & derivatives
  • 5-Methylcytosine / chemistry
  • 5-Methylcytosine / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Comet Assay
  • Copper / toxicity*
  • Crassostrea / drug effects*
  • Crassostrea / growth & development
  • DNA Methylation / drug effects*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / drug effects
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / metabolism
  • Gene Expression / drug effects*
  • Homeodomain Proteins / genetics
  • Homeodomain Proteins / metabolism
  • Larva / drug effects
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • RNA / isolation & purification
  • RNA / metabolism
  • Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity*


  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • 5-hydroxymethylcytosine
  • RNA
  • 5-Methylcytosine
  • Copper