• Ethanol;
  • Zinc;
  • Teratogenicity;
  • Metallothionein;
  • Mice


Ethanol profoundly affects fetal development, and this is proposed to be due primarily to a transient fetal zinc (Zn) deficiency that arises from the binding of Zn by metallothionein (MT) in the maternal liver. Zn homeostasis and fetal outcome were investigated in normal (MT+/+) and metallothionein-null (MT-/-) mice in response to ethanol exposure.


Mice were treated with saline or ethanol (0.015 ml/g intraperitoneally at 0 and 4 hr) on day 8 of gestation (Gd8), and the degree of fetal dysmorphology was assessed on Gd18. The incidence of external abnormalities was significantly increased in offspring from MT+/+ dams exposed to ethanol, where 27.4% of fetuses were affected. MT-/- ethanol-, MT+/+ saline-, and MT-/- saline-treated dams had fetuses in which the frequencies of abnormalities were 2.2, 6.4, and 6.9%, respectively. To investigate Zn homeostasis, nonpregnant mice were killed at intervals over 16 hr after ethanol injection. Liver MT concentrations in MT+/+ mice were increased 20-fold by 16 hr, with a significant elevation evident by 4 hr, whereas liver Zn levels were also significantly increased by 2 hr and maintained for 16 hr. In parallel with these changes, plasma Zn concentrations in MT+/+ mice decreased by 65%, with minimum levels of 4.5±0.3 μmol/liter at 8 hr. Conversely, MT-/- mice exhibited increased plasma Zn concentrations, with peak values of 20.8±0.3 observed at 4 hr.


These findings link the teratogenic effect of ethanol to the induction of maternal MT and the limitation of fetal Zn supply from the plasma.