SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.34 issue4Genotoxicity biomonitoring of sewage in two municipal wastewater treatment plants using the Tradescantia pallida var. purpurea bioassayTranscript levels of ten caste-related genes in adult diploid males of Melipona quadrifasciata (Hymenoptera, Apidae): a comparison with haploid males, queens and workers author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand



  • English (pdf)
  • Article in xml format
  • How to cite this article
  • SciELO Analytics
  • Curriculum ScienTI
  • Automatic translation


Related links


Genetics and Molecular Biology

Print version ISSN 1415-4757

Genet. Mol. Biol. vol.34 no.4 São Paulo  2011 



Studies of micronuclei and other nuclear abnormalities in red blood cells of Colossoma macropomum exposed to methylmercury



Carlos Alberto Machado da RochaI, II; Lorena Araújo da CunhaII; Raul Henrique da Silva PinheiroI, III; Marcelo de Oliveira BahiaII; Rommel Mario Rodríguez BurbanoII

ICoordenação de Recursos Pesqueiros e Agronegócio, Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia do Pará, Belém, PA, Brazil
IILaboratório de Citogenética Humana e Genética Toxicológica, Universidade Federal do Pará, Belém, PA, Brazil
IIICurso de Engenharia de Pesca, Universidade Federal Rural da Amazônia, Belém, PA, Brazil

Send correspondence to




The frequencies of micronuclei (MN) and morphological nuclear abnormalities (NA) in erythrocytes in the peripheral blood of tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum), treated with 2 mg.L-1 methylmercury (MeHg), were analyzed. Two groups (nine specimens in each) were exposed to MeHg for different periods (group A - 24 h; group B - 120 h). A third group served as negative control (group C, untreated; n = 9). Although, when compared to the control group there were no significant differences in MN frequency in the treated groups, for NA, the differences between the frequencies of group B (treated for 120 h) and the control group were extremely significant (p < 0.02), thus demonstrating the potentially adverse effects of MeHg on C. macropomum erythrocytes after prolonged exposure.

Key words: cytotoxicity; genotoxicity; methylmercury; micronuclei assay.



Heavy metals represent a significant ecological and public health threat, through their toxicity and ability to accumulate in living organisms (Çavas, 2008). The amply described adverse effects therefrom, in both the natural environment and under laboratory conditions give testimony to their toxicity in certain concentrations (Russo et al., 2004). Furthermore, environmental contamination through the bioaccumulation of compounds containing heavy metals is a potential cause of damage to genetic material (Prá et al., 2006).

Mercury is considered one of the most dangerous of the heavy metals, through its high toxicity, bioaccumulative properties, and other deleterious effects on biota, this including genetic alteration or mutagenesis (WHO, 1990). Among other mutagenic properties, mercury and certain organomercurial compounds exert an adverse effect on tubulin, the structural subunit of microtubules involved in cytoplasm organization, and also a component of spindle fibers. Mercury impairs tubulin polymerization, thereby causing the contraction of metaphasic chromosomes, a delay in centromere division, and slower anaphasic movement (Thier et al., 2003). Methylmercury (MeHg) is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a group 2B substance, thereby indicating a tendency to being carcinogenic for humans (Hallenbeck, 1993).

Biomonitoring, a promising tool for identifying pollutants (bioindicators) that affect human and environmental health, is especially useful with organisms thus exposed in biological systems (biomarkers) (Silva et al., 2003). The effects of genotoxic substances on fish genomes have been the theme of many studies, especially when seeking to establish the response of genes to environmental stimuli (Bücker et al., 2006). Since fish response to toxicants is often similar to that in the higher vertebrates, they can be useful in screening for chemicals potentially capable of inducing teratogenic and carcinogenic effects in humans (Al-Sabti and Metcalfe, 1995).

The micronucleus test, one of the most popular and promising tests of environmental genotoxicity, has served as an index of cytogenetic damage for over 30 years (Fenech et al., 2003). In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the simultaneous expression of morphological nuclear abnormalities (NAs) and micronuclei (MN) in the piscine micronucleus test (Çavas and Ergene-Gozukara, 2003). Among current cytogenetic techniques, NAs and MNs are considered as indicators of cytotoxicity and genetic toxicology, respectively (Çavas et al., 2005; Grisolia et al., 2009).

Abundant data indicating the increase in genotoxic and cytotoxic damage induced by mercury have been divulged in scientific literature (Ayllon and Garcia-Vazquez, 2000; Çavas, 2008, Guilherme et al., 2008; Rocha et al., 2009). As the genotoxic and cytotoxic potential of mercury compounds is a well-known phenomenon, the main aim of the current study was to assess nuclear responses in fish treated with methylmercury chloride.

Colossoma macropomum (Cuvier, 1818), commonly known as tambaqui was chosen as a model. This species of the Characidae is the biggest Characiforme in the Solimões/Amazonas River system, reaching a size of 1 m in native environment and weighing approximately 30 kg (Araújo-Lima and Goulding, 1998).

Juvenile specimens of C. macropomum, with an average length of 14.3 ± 1.04 cm and an average weight of 42.5 ± 8.20 g, were obtained from the Pisciculture Station of the Federal Rural-Amazon University in Castanhal, Pará State, Brazil. The fishes were transported to the laboratory, where they remained for one-month acclimatization at a density of three specimens per 30-L aquarium under constant aeration, with a 12-h light/dark photoperiod and chlorine-free water, at pH 6.5 ± 0.29 and a temperature of 26 ± 1.3 °C.

Methylmercury chloride (Pestanal®, analytical standard, approximately 100% pure), was purchased from Sigma-Aldrich®. Exposure to the contaminant was facilitated via water, with a sub-lethal MeHg concentration of 2 mg.L-1. This concentration equals the greater found during the Minamata disaster (Japan). Two groups (nine specimens in each) were exposed for different lengths of time (group A: 24 h; group B: 120 h), with a third group as negative control (group C, untreated; n = 9).

Peripheral blood, obtained with heparinized syringes, was immediately smeared. After fixation in ethanol (100%) for 20 min, the slides were initially left to air-dry, and after stained with 10% Giemsa. Four thousand erythrocytes per fish were examined at 1000 x magnification. MNs were defined as round or oval intracytoplasmatic bodies neither linked nor connected in any way to the main nucleus, with a diameter of 1/30-1/10 of that of the major nucleus and on the same optical plane (Al-Sabti and Metcalfe, 1995; Ayllon and Garcia-Vazquez, 2000). The NAs were used as cytotoxicity biomarkers. Three NAs were considered, viz., buds, lobes and invaginations (Ayllon and Garcia-Vazquez, 2000; Bolognesi et al., 2006). The frequencies of MN and morphological NAs were calculated from the same microscopic slides.

The Kolmogorov-Smirnov test of MN and NA data for goodness of fit (p-value > 0.05) revealed no significant departure from normality. After assessing the normality of data distribution, parametric tests were applied for detecting differences at the 0.05 significance level. Differences between mean values were compared by means of one way ANOVA and the Least Significant Difference (LSD) test. All the data were expressed as means ± standard deviation (SD). All the analyses were undertaken with the BioEstat 5.0 statistical package (Ayres et al., 2007).

MN and NA frequencies in red blood cells of C. macropomum treated with MeHg are shown in Figure 1. Although initially no significant differences were observed in MN frequencies between unexposed control fishes and those exposed, a statistically significant increase in erythrocytes with altered nuclear morphology was indeed observed after exposure for 120 h.



Whilst spontaneous (or basal) MN frequency in fish is normally very low (Ferraro et al., 2004), appreciable interspecies differences have been reported. Thus, when considering frequency per 1,000 cells, MNs were 0.08 ± 0.13 in Hoplias malabaricus (Ferraro et al., 2004), 0.1 ± 0.316 in Eigenmannia virescens (Bücker et al., 2006), 3.17 ± 0.48 in Carassius auratus (Çavas and Könen, 2007), and 2.4 ± 1.19 in Colossoma macropomum (present paper). Furthermore, in MN assaying undertaken by Ramsdorf et al. (2009), using H. malabaricus, there were no MNs, only nuclear morphological alterations.

The high interindividual variability associated to the low baseline frequency for this biomarker, confirms the need for scoring a consistent number of cells (at least 4000) per specimen, in an appropriate number of animals (Bolognesi et al., 2006), which was the case in the present study. Nevertheless, in the literature, divergence is wide as to the ideal quantity.

Although not statistically significant, in the present experiment, group A (exposed to MeHg for 24 h) presented fewer micronucleated erythrocytes than the control group. This may be for several reasons, such as either the ectothermic nature of the fish, the effects of erythropoesis and seasonal variability erythrocyte nuclear morphology, the lifespan of the circulating erythrocytes, or the elimination of old erythrocytes and those containing micro- (Udroiu, 2006) and irregular shaped nuclei.

Erythrocytic NA frequency and its affinity with total mercury concentration (Hgt) in the blood were seasonally assessed in the mullet Liza aurata from the Laranjo basin, Aveiro, Portugal. Surprisingly, no NA induction was found during the winter, notwithstanding the high blood Hgt, possibly explainable by dynamic haematological alterations, viz., reduced erythropoesis and/or increased erythrocyte elimination, capable of masking genotoxicity expression (Guilherme et al., 2008).

Reports are contradictory as to the genotoxic potential of mercury compounds. For example, Phoxinus phoxinus treated with mercury nitrate presented no significant increase in nuclear damage (Ayllon and Garcia-Vazquez, 2000). Similar findings were also reported for Hoplias malabaricus exposed to trophic doses of methylmercury (Lopes-Poleza S, 2004, Master Dissertation, Universidade Federal do Paraná, Belém). Notwithstanding, mercury compounds seem to be genotoxic for other fish species, as Poecilia latipinna exposed to mercury nitrate (Ayllon and Garcia-Vazquez, 2000), and Carassius auratus exposed to mercury chloride (Çavas, 2008). In other fish-species, such as killifish (Fundulus heterociclitus), MN induction was obtained by exposure to methylmercury derivatives, more active over a short period of time than inorganic mercury salts (Perry et al., 1988). According to Grisolia et al. (2009), one should be aware of the differential sensitivity and responses of aquatic organisms to genotoxic agents, and their relationships within the aquatic ecosystem.

Among current cytogenetic techniques, MN and certain other NAs are considered to be sensitive indicators of genotoxicity and cytotoxicity, numerous reports indicating that mercury induces a greater number of NAs than MNs (Ayllon and Garcia-Vazquez, 2000; Çavas, 2008; Rocha et al., 2009; and Lopes-Poleza S, 2004, Master Dissertation, Universidade Federal do Paraná, Belém). In the present case, C. macropomum only seems to be sensitive to mercury cytotoxicity due to the induction of morphological NAs.



This paper is part of the project entitled "Genotoxicity evaluation of methylmercury chloride in aquatic organisms of different trophic niches" (Grant N. 485181/2007-0), funded by the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq). The authors wish to thank Dr Marco Brabo (Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia do Pará - IFPA/Bragança-PA) for his invaluable support in obtaining the specimens.



Al-Sabti K and Metcalfe CD (1995) Fish micronuclei for assessing genotoxicity in water. Mutat Res 343:121-135.         [ Links ]

Araújo-Lima CARM and Goulding M (1998) Os Frutos do Tambaqui: Ecologia, Conservação e Cultivo na Amazônia. Sociedade Civil Mamirauá/CNPq/Rainforest Alliance, Brasília, 186 pp.         [ Links ]

Ayllon F and Garcia-Vazquez E (2000) Induction of micronuclei and other nuclear abnormalities in European minnow Phoxinus phoxinus and mollie Poecilia latipinna: An assessment of the fish micronucleus test. Mutat Res 467:177-186.         [ Links ]

Ayres M, Ayres Junior M, Ayres D and Santos A (2007) BioEstat 5.0: Aplicações Estatísticas nas Áreas de Ciências Biológicas e Médicas. Sociedade Civil Manirauá/CNPq, Belém, 364 pp.         [ Links ]

Bolognesi C, Perrone E, Roggieri P, Pampanin DM and Sciutto A (2006) Assessment of micronuclei induction in peripheral erythrocytes of fish exposed to xenobiotics under controlled conditions. Aquat Toxicol 78S:93S-98S.         [ Links ]

Bücker A, Carvalho W and Alves-Gomes J (2006) Evaluation of mutagenicity and genotoxicity in Eigenmannia virescens (Teleostei, Gymnotiformes) exposed to benzene. Acta Amazônica 36:357-364.         [ Links ]

Çavas T (2008) In vivo genotoxicity of mercury chloride and lead acetate: Micronucleus test on acridine orange stained fish cells. Food Chem Toxicol 46:352-358.         [ Links ]

Çavas T and Ergene-Gozukara S (2003) Micronuclei, nuclear lesions and interphase silver-stained nucleolar organizer regions (AgNORs) as cyto-genotoxicity indicators in Oreochromis niloticus exposed to textile mill effluent. Mutat Res 534:93-99.         [ Links ]

Çavas T and Könen S (2007) Detection of cytogenetic and DNA damage in peripheral erythrocytes of goldfish (Carassius auratus) exposed to a glyphosate formulation using the micronucleus test and the comet assay. Mutagenesis 22:263-268.         [ Links ]

Çavas T, Garanko NN and Arkhipchuk VV (2005) Induction of micronuclei and binuclei in blood, gill and liver cells of shes subchronically exposed to cadmium chloride and copper sulphate. Food Chem Toxicol 43:569-574.         [ Links ]

Fenech M, Chang WP, Kirsch-Volders M, Holland N, Bonassi S and Zeiger E (2003) HUMN project: Detailed description of the scoring criteria for the cytokinesis-block micronucleus assay using isolated human lymphocyte cultures. Mutat Res 534:65-75.         [ Links ]

Ferraro MV, Fenocchio A, Mantovani M, Ribeiro C and Cestari MM. (2004) Mutagenic effects of tributyltin and inorganic lead (Pb II) on the fish H. malabaricus as evaluated using the comet assay and the piscine micronucleus and chromosome aberration tests. Genet Mol Biol 27:103-107.         [ Links ]

Grisolia CK, Rivero CLG, Starling FLRM, Silva ICR, Barbosa AC and Dorea JG (2009) Profile of micronucleus frequencies and DNA damage in different species of fish in a eutrophic tropical lake. Genet Mol Biol 32:138-143.         [ Links ]

Guilherme S, Válega M, Pereira ME, Santos MA and Pacheco M (2008) Erythrocytic nuclear abnormalities in wild and caged fish (Liza aurata) along an environmental mercury contamination gradient. Ecotoxicol Environ Safety 70:411-421.         [ Links ]

Hallenbeck WH (1993) Quantitative Risk Assessment for Environmental and Occupational Health. 2nd edition. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, 224 pp.         [ Links ]

Perry DM, Weis JS and Weis P (1988) Cytogenetic effects of methylmercury in embryos of the killifiss Fundulus heteroclitus. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 17:569-574.         [ Links ]

Prá D, Guecheva T, Franke SIR, Knakievicz T, Erdtmann B and Henriques JAP (2006) Toxicidade e geonotoxicidade do sulfato de cobre em planárias de água doce e camundongos. J Braz Soc Ecotoxicol 2:171-176.         [ Links ]

Ramsdorf W, Ferraro MVM, Oliveira-Ribeiro CA, Costa JRM and Cestari MM (2009) Genotoxic evaluation of different doses of inorganic lead (PbII) in Hoplias malabaricus. Environ Monit Assess 158:77-85.         [ Links ]

Rocha CAM, Santos R, Bahia MO, Cunha LA, Ribeiro H and Burbano R (2009) The micronucleus assay in fish species as an important tool for xenobiotic exposure risk assessment - A brief review and an example using neotropical fish exposed to methylmercury. Rev Fish Sci 17:478-484.         [ Links ]

Russo C, Rocco L, Morescalchi MA and Stingo V (2004) Assessment of environmental stress by the micronucleus test and the comet assay on the genome of teleost populations from two natural environments. Ecotoxicol Environ Safety 57:168-174.         [ Links ]

Silva J, Heuser V and Andrade V (2003) Biomonitoramento ambiental. In: Silva J, Erdtmann B and Henriques J (eds) Genética Toxicológica. Alcance, Porto Alegre, pp 167-178.         [ Links ]

Thier R, Bonacker D, Stoiber T, Böhm K, Wang M, Unger E, Bolt H and Degen G (2003) Interaction of metal salts with cytoskeletal motor protein systems. Toxicol Lett 140-41:75-81.         [ Links ]

Udroiu I (2006) The micronucleus test in piscine erythrocytes. Aquat Toxicol 79:201-204.         [ Links ]

WHO (1990) Methylmercury: Environmental Health Criteria, v. 101. World Health Organization, Geneva, 140 pp.         [ Links ]



Send correspondence to:
Carlos Alberto Machado da Rocha
Coordenação de Recursos Pesqueiros e Agronegócio
Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia do Pará
Av. Almirante Barroso 1155, Marco, 66093-020
Belém, PR, Brazil

Received: May 23, 2011; Accepted: August 15, 2011.



Associate Editor: Daisy Maria F. Salvadori
License information: This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Creative Commons License All the contents of this journal, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License