BACKGROUND: Artesunate (ART), an artemisinin antimalarial, is embryolethal and teratogenic in rats, with the most sensitive days being 10 and 11 postcoitum (pc), respectively (Clark et al.: Birth Defects Res B 71:380–394, 2004; White et al.: Birth Defects Res A 70:265, 2004). METHODS: In this study, pregnant rats were administered a single oral dose of 17 mg/kg ART on Days 10–11 pc and conceptuses were evaluated through Day 14 pc. RESULTS: Paling of visceral yolk sacs was observed within 3–6 hr after treatment. Within 24 hr, marked paling and embryonic erythroblast depletion were observed macroscopically, which preceded malformations and embryo death, and persisted through Day 14 pc. Histologically, embryonic erythroblasts were reduced and cells showed signs of necrosis within 24 hr, were maximally depleted by 48 hr, and had partially rebounded within 3–4 days after treatment (Days 13 and 14 pc). Iron accumulation was evident in treated erythroblasts as early as 6 hr after treatment, suggesting impairment of heme synthesis. Heart abnormalities (swollen or collapsed chambers) were observed within 24 hr in ∼25–60% of embryos and within 48 hr in 100% of embryos, correlating with histologic signs of cardiac myopathy (thinned and underdeveloped heart walls and enlarged chambers). Delays in limb and tail development occurred by Day 13 pc. Embryos were viable through Day 13 pc, but ∼77% of embryos had died by Day 14 pc, presumably due to hypoxia and/or cardiac abnormalities. CONCLUSIONS: In summary, embryonic erythroblasts are the primary target of ART toxicity in the rat embryo after in vivo treatment, preceding embryolethality and malformations. Birth Defects Res (Part B) 77:413–429, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.