The impact of metals on the reproductive mechanisms of the ascidian Ciona intestinalis


  • This work is dedicated to the memory of the Italian ascidiologist Dr. Giuseppina Ortolani.

Elisabetta Tosti, Animal Physiology and Evolution Laboratory, Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Villa Comunale, 80121 Naples, Italy.E-mail:


Environmental pollution due to anthropogenic activities may exert an adverse impact on the reproductive mechanisms of animals. In particular, environmental chemicals introduced into seawater are able to disrupt the normal development and function of the reproductive system of marine animals. In this study, we have used the whole-cell voltage clamp technique to examine the effects of four metals – lead, cadmium, mercury, and zinc – on reproductive mechanisms of the marine ascidian Ciona intestinalis (tunicates). In particular, we measured the effect of metals on plasma membrane electrical properties, the steady-state conductance, the fertilization current in the mature oocyte, and larval development. Results show that oocyte voltage-gated sodium currents are significantly reduced by all four metals, steady-state conductance is affected only by zinc, and post-fertilization contraction is inhibited only by lead. The fertilization current is suppressed in the presence of zinc and mercury. Embryo development up to larval stage is inhibited by zinc and mercury exposure with a reversible effect; however, a long-term effect on larval morphology was observed. After exposure to cadmium, fertilization occurs but gives rise to abnormal larval development. These findings highlight the point that exposure to metals represents a significant risk factor for the physiology of reproduction of marine species and suggest a possible role of the C. intestinalis as a bioindicator for marine pollution monitoring.