BACKGROUND: Caligid copepods, also called sea lice, are fish ectoparasites, some species of which cause significant problems in the mariculture of salmon, where the annual cost of infection is in excess of [euro sign]300 million globally. At present, caligid control on farms is mainly achieved using medicinal treatments. However, the continued use of a restricted number of medicine actives potentially favours the development of drug resistance. Here, we report transcriptional changes in a laboratory strain of the caligid Lepeophtheirus salmonis (Kr[latin small letter o with stroke]yer, 1837) that is moderately (~7-fold) resistant to the avermectin compound emamectin benzoate (EMB), a component of the anti-salmon louse agent SLICE(R) (Merck Animal Health). RESULTS: Suppression subtractive hybridisation (SSH) was used to enrich transcripts differentially expressed between EMB-resistant (PT) and drug-susceptible (S) laboratory strains of L. salmonis. SSH libraries were subjected to 454 sequencing. Further L. salmonis transcript sequences were available as expressed sequence tags (EST) from GenBank. Contiguous sequences were generated from both SSH and EST sequences and annotated. Transcriptional responses in PT and S salmon lice were investigated using custom 15 K oligonucleotide microarrays designed using the above sequence resources. In the absence of EMB exposure, 359 targets differed in transcript abundance between the two strains, these genes being enriched for functions such as calcium ion binding, chitin metabolism and muscle structure. gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-gated chloride channel (GABA-Cl) and neuronal acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) subunits showed significantly lower transcript levels in PT lice compared to S lice. Using RT-qPCR, the decrease in mRNA levels was estimated at ~1.4-fold for GABA-Cl and ~2.8-fold for nAChR. Salmon lice from the PT strain showed few transcriptional responses following acute exposure (1 or 3 h) to 200 mug L-1 of EMB, a drug concentration tolerated by PT lice, but toxic for S lice. CONCLUSIONS: Avermectins are believed to exert their toxicity to invertebrates through interaction with glutamate-gated and GABA-gated chloride channels. Further potential drug targets include other Cys-loop ion channels such as nAChR. The present study demonstrates decreased transcript abundances of GABA-Cl and nAChR subunits in EMB-resistant salmon lice, suggesting their involvement in avermectin toxicity in caligids.