Dose Addition in the Induction of Craniofacial Malformations in Zebrafish Embryos Exposed to a Complex Mixture of Food-Relevant Chemicals with Dissimilar Modes of Action

Environ Health Perspect. 2022 Apr;130(4):47003. doi: 10.1289/EHP9888. Epub 2022 Apr 8.


Background: Humans are exposed to combinations of chemicals. In cumulative risk assessment (CRA), regulatory bodies such as the European Food Safety Authority consider dose addition as a default and sufficiently conservative approach. The principle of dose addition was confirmed previously for inducing craniofacial malformations in zebrafish embryos in binary mixtures of chemicals with either similar or dissimilar modes of action (MOAs).

Objectives: In this study, we explored a workflow to select and experimentally test multiple compounds as a complex mixture with each of the compounds at or below its no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL), in the same zebrafish embryo model.

Methods: Selection of candidate compounds that potentially induce craniofacial malformations was done using in silico methods-structural similarity, molecular docking, and quantitative structure-activity relationships-applied to a database of chemicals relevant for oral exposure in humans via food (EuroMix inventory, n=1,598). A final subselection was made manually to represent different regulatory fields (e.g., food additives, industrial chemicals, plant protection products), different chemical families, and different MOAs.

Results: A final selection of eight compounds was examined in the zebrafish embryo model, and craniofacial malformations were observed in embryos exposed to each of the compounds, thus confirming the developmental toxicity as predicted by the in silico methods. When exposed to a mixture of the eight compounds, each at its NOAEL, substantial craniofacial malformations were observed; according to a dose-response analysis, even embryos exposed to a 7-fold dilution of this mixture still exhibited a slight abnormal phenotype. The cumulative effect of the compounds in the mixture was in accordance with dose addition (added doses of the individual compounds after adjustment for relative potencies), despite different MOAs of the compounds involved.

Discussion: This case study of a complex mixture inducing craniofacial malformations in zebrafish embryos shows that dose addition can adequately predicted the cumulative effect of a mixture of multiple substances at low doses, irrespective of the (expected) MOA. The applied workflow may be useful as an approach for CRA in general.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Complex Mixtures*
  • Food
  • Humans
  • Molecular Docking Simulation
  • Risk Assessment
  • Zebrafish*


  • Complex Mixtures