Chronic exposure to copper and zinc induces DNA damage in the polychaete Alitta virens and the implications for future toxicity of coastal sites

Environ Pollut. 2018 Dec;243(Pt B):1498-1508. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2018.09.091. Epub 2018 Sep 27.


Copper and zinc are metals that have been traditionally thought of as past contamination legacies. However, their industrial use is still extensive and current applications (e.g. nanoparticles and antifouling paints) have become additional marine environment delivery routes. Determining a pollutant's genotoxicity is an ecotoxicological priority, but in marine benthic systems putative substances responsible for sediment genotoxicity have rarely been identified. Studies that use sediment as the delivery matrix combined with exposures over life-history relevant timescales are also missing for metals. Here we assess copper and zinc's genotoxicity by exposing the ecologically important polychaete Alitta virens to sediment spiked with environmentally relevant concentrations for 9 months. Target bioavailable sediment and subsequent porewater concentrations reflect the global contamination range for coasts, whilst tissue concentrations, although elevated, were comparable with other polychaetes. Survival generally reduced as concentrations increased, but monthly analyses show that growth was not significantly different between treatments. The differential treatment mortality may have enabled the surviving worms in the high concentration treatments to capture more food thus removing any concentration treatment effects for biomass. Using the alkaline comet assay we confirm that both metals via the sediment are genotoxic at concentrations routinely found in coastal regions and this is supported by elevated DNA damage in worms from field sites. However, combined with the growth data it also highlights the tolerance of A. virens to DNA damage. Finally, using long term (decadal) monitoring data we show stable or increasing sediment concentrations of these metals for many areas. This will potentially mean coastal sediment is a significant mutagenic hazard to the benthic community for decades to come. An urgent reappraisal of the current input sources for these 'old pollutants' is, therefore, required.

Keywords: Antifouling; Bioavailability; Genotoxic; Nanoparticles; Nereis virens; Porewater.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Comet Assay
  • Copper / analysis
  • Copper / toxicity*
  • DNA Damage / drug effects*
  • Geologic Sediments / analysis
  • Mutagens / analysis
  • Polychaeta / genetics*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity*
  • Zinc / analysis
  • Zinc / toxicity*


  • Mutagens
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Copper
  • Zinc