Abstract This study has determined the sensitivity of the alkaline comet assay for the detection of strand breaks in the DNA of cells taken from a whole organism rather than a single cell type as in previously reported studies. The assay has been performed on cells from whole zebrafish larvae irradiated for 1 or 24 h at dose rates of 0.4, 1.2 or 7.2 mGy/h. Zebrafish larvae exposed to only 1.2 mGy/h of γ-radiation for 1 h showed a statistically significant increase in DNA damage compared to controls. This represents a high sensitivity of this animal model for DNA damage and of the comet assay protocol used for detecting such damage. Increasing the exposure time from 1 to 24 h caused significant increases in DNA damage in zebrafish larvae, although the modest size of these increases in damage for the relatively large increases (24 times) in total absorbed dose indicates that dose rate may be the major factor in determining the level of DNA damage observed under the conditions of these experiments.