Combined Danio rerio embryo morbidity, mortality and photomotor response assay: A tool for developmental risk assessment from chronic cyanoHAB exposure

Sci Total Environ. 2019 Dec 20;697:134210. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.134210. Epub 2019 Aug 31.


Freshwater harmful algal blooms produce a broad array of bioactive compounds, with variable polarity. Acute exposure to cyanotoxins can impact the liver, nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, and immune function. Increasing evidence suggests chronic effects from low-level exposures of cyanotoxins and other associated bioactive metabolites of cyanobacterial origin. These sundry compounds persist in drinking and recreational waters and challenge resource managers in detection and removal. A systematic approach to assess the developmental toxicity of cyanobacterial metabolite standards was employed utilizing a robust and high throughput developmental Danio rerio embryo platform that incorporated a neurobehavioral endpoint, photomotor response. Subsequently, we applied the platform to cyanobacterial bloom surface water samples taken from temperate recreational beaches and tropical lake subsistence drinking water sources as a model approach. Dechorionated Danio rerio embryos were statically immersed beginning at four to six hours post fertilization at environmentally relevant concentrations, and then assessed at 24 h and 5 days for morbidity, morphological changes, and photomotor response. At least one assessed endpoint deviated significantly for exposed embryos for 22 out of 25 metabolites examined. Notably, the alkaloid lyngbyatoxin-a resulted in profound, dose-dependent morbidity and mortality beginning at 5 μg/L. In addition, hydrophobic components of extracts from beach monitoring resulted in potent morbidity and mortality despite only trace cyanotoxins detected. The hydrophilic extracts with several order of magnitude higher concentrations of microcystins resulted in no morbidity or mortality. Developmental photomotor response was consistently altered in environmental bloom samples, independent of the presence or concentration of toxins detected in extracts. While limited with respect to more polar compounds, this novel screening approach complements specific fingerprinting of acutely toxic metabolites with robust assessment of developmental toxicity, critical for chronic exposure scenarios.

Keywords: Behavioral response; Chronic exposure; Cyanobacterial blooms; Zebrafish embryo.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Toxins / toxicity*
  • Bathing Beaches
  • Cyanobacteria*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / physiopathology
  • Harmful Algal Bloom*
  • Lakes
  • Microcystins / toxicity*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Uruguay
  • Zebrafish*


  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Microcystins