Many of the morphological defects associated with embryonic alcohol exposure are a result of cell death. During limb development, ethanol administration produces cell death in the limb and digital defects, including postaxial ectrodactyly. Because an accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) is produced in adult and embryonic tissues by ethanol exposure, this investigation examines the possibility that ethanol-induced cell death in the limb is a result of ROS. Using an in vitro primary culture of limb mesenchyme, the effects of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and ethanol on cell death and differentiation were examined. In addition, a dichlorofluorescein diacetate assay was performed to determine the relative intracellular ROS levels after exposure to several concentrations of ethanol and H2O2. Exposure of 1 to 100 μM H2O2 resulted in a 1.08–1.21 times control increase in cartilage matrix accumulation. Cell death was increased 1.69–2.76 times the untreated control value. Production of ROS ranged from 1.25–1.51 times untreated controls. Ethanol exposure of 0.25 to 1.00% (v/v) did not affect cartilage matrix accumulation but resulted in an increase of cell death (1.45–2.31 times untreated control). Intracellular ROS levels after ethanol exposure increased 1.08–1.15 times control but were lower than that produced by 1 μM H2O2. On the basis of the correlation between ROS level produced by H2O2, it was concluded that ethanol-induced cell death in limb mesenchyme is a result of a non-ROS–mediated mechanism. Therefore, in addition to ethanol-induced cell death mediated by ROS reported in the literature, ethanol-induced cell death can be induced in limb mesenchyme by mechanisms that are not dependent upon ROS.
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