Heavy metals are stable and persistent environmental contaminants. The range of metal concentrations is generally below acute thresholds in coastal areas, where recognition of chronic sublethal effects is more relevant. Evidence of long-term adverse effects, such as cancer, due to heavy metals in marine animals comes from a number of field and experimental studies. The mechanism of metal carcinogenicity remains largely unknown, although several lines of experimental evidence suggest that a genotoxic effect may be involved. The aim of our study was to evaluate the sensitivity of genotoxicity tests, alkaline elution and micronucleus test, as biomarkers for the detection of heavy metals in mussels as the sentinel species. Experimental studies were carried out on Mytilus galloprovincialis exposed in aquarium (5 days) to different concentrations of three selected metal salts, CuCl2 (5, 10, 20, 40, 80 µg/l/a), CdCl2 (1.84, 18.4, 184 µg/l/a), and HgCl2 (32 µg/l/a), and to a mixture of equimolar doses of the three metals to study the results of their joint action. Metallothionein quantitation was used as a marker of metal exposure. Lysosomal membrane stability was applied to evaluate the influence of physiological status on genotoxic damage. The ranking of genotoxic potential was in decreasing order: Hg > Cu > Cd. Cu and Hg caused an increase of DNA single-strand breaks and micronuclei frequency. Cd induced a statistical increase of DNA damage, but gave negative results with the micronucleus test. A relationship between genotoxic effects and metallothionein content was observed. Reduction in lysosomal membrane stability with the increasing concentration of heavy metals was also evident. Environ. Mol. Mutagen. 33:287–292, 1999 © 1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.