The mechanisms of toxicity of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) to the early life stages of freshwater fish, and the relative hazard compared to dissolved metals, is only partially understood. In the present study, zebrafish embryos were exposed to lethal concentrations of copper sulphate (CuSO4) or copper oxide (CuO) ENMs (primary size ∼15 nm), and then the sub-lethal effects investigated at the LC10 concentrations over 96 h. The 96 h-LC50 (mean ± 95% CI) for CuSO4 was 303 ± 14 µg Cu L−1 compared to 53 ± 9.9 mg L−1 of the whole material for CuO ENMs; with the ENMs being orders of magnitude less toxic than the metal salt. The EC50 for hatching success was 76 ± 11 µg Cu L−1 and 0.34 ± 0.78 mg L−1 for CuSO4 and CuO ENMs respectively. Failure to hatch was associated with bubbles and foam-looking perivitelline fluid (CuSO4), or particulate material smothering the chorion (CuO ENMs). In the sub-lethal exposures, about 42% of the total Cu as CuSO4 was internalised, as measured by Cu accumulation in the de-chorionated embryos, but for the ENMs exposures, nearly all (94%) of the total Cu was associated with chorion; indicating the chorion as an effective barrier to protect the embryo from the ENMs in the short term. Both forms of Cu exposure caused sodium (Na+) and calcium (Ca2+), but not magnesium (Mg2+), depletion from the embryos; and CuSO4 caused some inhibition of the sodium pump (Na+/K+-ATPase) activity. Both forms of Cu exposure caused some loss of total glutathione (tGSH) in the embryos, but without induction of superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity. In conclusion, CuSO4 was much more toxic than CuO ENMs to early life stage zebrafish, but there are subtle differences in the exposure and toxic mechanisms for each substance.



Publication Date


Publication Title

Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety



First Page


Last Page




Embargo Period


Organisational Unit

School of Biological and Marine Sciences