Evaluating the toxicity of estetrol, 17α-ethinylestradiol, and their combination with drospirenone on zebrafish larvae: A behavioural and proteomic study

Aquat Toxicol. 2024 Jun:271:106941. doi: 10.1016/j.aquatox.2024.106941. Epub 2024 May 5.


Objective: To characterise and compare the toxicity of estetrol (E4) and 17α-ethinylestradiol (EE2), and their respective mixture with the progestin drospirenone (DRSP) in zebrafish (Danio rerio) embryos.

Methods: Zebrafish embryos were exposed to E4, EE2, DRSP, E4+DRSP, and EE2+DRSP in a fish embryo acute toxicity (FET) test. A second test examined behavioural responses and, using label-free proteomics, identified changes in protein expression in response to hormonal treatments, across a range of concentrations, including those that are considered to be environmentally relevant.

Results: In the FET test, no effects were found from E4 at concentrations ≤100 mg/L, while EE2 induced mortality and morphological abnormalities at concentrations of 1-2 mg/L. In the behavioural test, exposure to 30 ng/L EE2 (∼200 × predicted environmental concentration - PEC) resulted in hypoactivity in fish larvae and exposure to 0.3 ng/L EE2 (∼2 × PEC) led to quantitative changes in protein abundance, revealing potential impacts on RNA processing and protein synthesis machinery. Exposure to E4 did not alter behaviour, but several groups of proteins were modulated, mainly at 710 ng/L (∼200 × PEC), including proteins involved in oxidative phosphorylation. When combined with DRSP, EE2 induced reduced effects on behaviour and proteomic responses, suggesting an antagonistic effect of DRSP. E4+DRSP induced no significant effects on behaviour or proteomic profiles at tested concentrations.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that E4-based combined oral contraceptives present a more favourable environmental profile than EE2-based contraceptives, particularly during the early developmental stages of fish.

Keywords: 17α-ethinylestradiol; Drospirenone; Estetrol; Toxicity; Zebrafish.

MeSH terms

  • Androstenes* / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal* / drug effects
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / drug effects
  • Ethinyl Estradiol* / toxicity
  • Larva* / drug effects
  • Proteomics*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical* / toxicity
  • Zebrafish*


  • drospirenone