Cultures of vertebrate cells are widely applied in mechanistic studies in human toxicology as well as in toxicity identification in ecotoxicology. As in vitro models, they display many advantages over whole animal experimentation, pertaining to such characteristics as availability, reproducibility and costs. As well, they satisfy the societal desire to reduce the number of animals in toxicology. For these reasons vertebrate cell models also appear to be a desirable replacement for animals in regulatory tests. Several vertebrate cell models are now accepted for regulatory purposes in human health sciences, with the test for photocytotoxicity using the 3T3 mouse cell line being one example. However, an in vitro alternative to whole animal tests has not yet been established for regulatory risk assessment in ecotoxicology. This review sets out to outline why such a replacement has not yet been possible and explores avenues to improve vertebrate cell cultures so that a replacement of whole animal tests could more likely be achieved. Inasmuch as fish is the most widely used non-mammalian vertebrate in risk assessment and regulation, focus will be on the replacement, by in vitro vertebrate models, of fish. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.