We explore the use of the clam Tapes semidecussatus Reeves 1864 as an indicator for the presence of potentially genotoxic substances in estuarine sediments. The limitations associated with the interpretation of Comet Assay data (expressed as % DNA in tail) in terms of clam reproductive state, size (age) and thermal exposure history following laboratory acclimation are discussed. Hatchery-reared clams, subjected to ambient temperature fluctuations during growth, were exposed in vivo under laboratory conditions for three weeks to sediment samples collected from a polluted site and a "clean" reference site. The DNA damage observed in haemocytes, gill and digestive gland cells was significantly higher in animals exposed to contaminated sediment compared to those exposed to sediment from the reference site. The extent of DNA damage recorded was not correlated with size (age). Spawning was not observed during the experiment. Nevertheless, clams with well-developed gonads showed a statistically higher degree of DNA damage in gill and digestive gland cells- but not haemocytes, demonstrating an increased sensitivity to potential genotoxic compounds, possibly caused by impaired DNA repair capacity due to reproductive activity. Furthermore, the degree of DNA damage in clams exposed to contaminated sediments was higher in autumn and winter compared to spring and summer, suggesting an effect of seasonal priming. (C) 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.