The metabolites could not be ignored: A comparative study of the metabolite norfluoxetine with its parent fluoxetine on zebrafish (Danio rerio)

Aquat Toxicol. 2023 Apr;257:106467. doi: 10.1016/j.aquatox.2023.106467. Epub 2023 Mar 1.


The ubiquitous pharmaceuticals in aquatic environments have attracted huge attention due to their significant risks to humans and ecosystems. However, even though the knowledge of the negative effects induced by the parent pharmaceuticals is quite extensive, little is known about their metabolites for a long time. This study provides systematical knowledge about the potential toxicity of metabolite norfluoxetine and its parent fluoxetine on zebrafish (Danio rerio) at the early life stage. The results showed that the metabolite norfluoxetine had similar acute toxicity in fish with the parent fluoxetine. For the altered fish development, there was no significant difference in most cases between the two pharmaceuticals. Compared to the control, the metabolite markedly inhibited the locomotor behavior under light-to-dark transitions, which was comparable to the parent. Norfluoxetine could easily accumulate but hardly eliminate from fish, relative to fluoxetine. In addition, the accumulated fluoxetine in zebrafish may rapidly metabolize to norfluoxetine and then be eliminated through different metabolic pathways. The functional genes related to serotonergic process (5-ht1aa, 5-ht2c, slc6a4b, and vmat), early growth (egr4), and circadian rhythm (per2) were downregulated by both the norfluoxetine and fluoxetine, indicative of the same mode-of-action of norfluoxetine with its parent in these functions. Meanwhile, the alterations caused by norfluoxetine were more pronounced than that of fluoxetine in the genes of 5-ht2c, slc6a4b, vmat, and per2. The molecular docking also confirmed that norfluoxetine could bind with serotonin transporter protein in the same as fluoxetine with a lower binding free energy. Overall, the metabolite norfluoxetine could induce similar and even more toxic effects on zebrafish with the same mode of action. The different and binding energy of the metabolite norfluoxetine and its parent fluoxetine on zebrafish may be responsible for the differentiated effects. It highlights the risks of the metabolite norfluoxetine in the aquatic environment could not be ignored.

Keywords: 5-HT transporte; Accumulation; Biotransformation; Gene expression; Metabolite.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Early Growth Response Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Ecosystem
  • Fluoxetine* / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Molecular Docking Simulation
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical* / toxicity
  • Zebrafish / metabolism


  • Early Growth Response Transcription Factors
  • EGR4 protein, human
  • Fluoxetine
  • norfluoxetine
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical