• Ethanol;
  • Model System;
  • Nematode;
  • Caenorhabditis elegans;
  • Fetal alcohol

Background:  We investigated the effects of chronic ethanol exposure on physical development, reproduction, and life expectancy of Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic nematode worm. It has a small nervous system of 302 neurons and a short lifespan of 2 to 3 weeks.

Methods:  In this study, the worms were chronically exposed to varying concentrations of ethanol for different periods of their life: for their entire lifespan, during larval development only, and during adulthood only. In addition, the worms were exposed to ethanol acutely during different stages of embryonic development.

Results:  Chronic exposure to ethanol during larval development temporarily delayed physical growth, slowed development, delayed the onset of reproductive maturity, and decreased both reproductive fecundity and longevity. Chronic exposure to ethanol beginning when worms completed development and reached reproductive maturity resulted in reduced C. elegans body length, decreased reproductive fecundity, and life expectancy. Finally, acute embryonic exposure of C. elegans eggs to high concentrations of ethanol at different stages of development resulted in a lower probability of exposed eggs hatching into larval worms depending on when eggs were exposed during development. Furthermore, some of the worms that did hatch displayed distinct physical dysmorphologies as a consequence of acute ethanol exposure during embryonic development.

Conclusions:  These data suggest that exposing C. elegans to ethanol during critical development periods results in characteristic phenotypic outcomes. Thus, C. elegans offers a novel model for exploring the mechanisms by which ethanol exposure affects development.