Take a sneak peek at the new NIST.gov and let us know what you think!
(Please note: some content may not be complete on the beta site.).

View the beta site
NIST logo
Bookmark and Share

Trophic Transfer of Nanoparticles in a Simplified Invertebrate Food Web


We demonstrated that carboxylated and biotinylated quantum dots (QDs) can be transferred to higher trophic organisms (rotifers) through dietary uptake of ciliated protozoans. QD accumulation from the surrounding environment (bioconcentration) was limited in the ciliates and no QD enrichment (biomagnification) was observed in the rotifers. Our findings indicate that dietary uptake of nanomaterials should be considered for higher trophic aquatic organisms. However, limited bioconcentration and lack of biomagnification may impede the detection of nanomaterials in invertebrate species.


The potential environmental risks, including their impact on aquatic organisms, have been a central argument for regulating the growth of the nanotechnology sector. One area of significant concern for the risk assessment community is the potential for engineered nanomaterials to trophically transfer and accumulate (a process called biomagnification) along a particular food chain. Such behavior has been demonstrated for toxic contaminants such as DDT and mercury and necessitates human consumption limits of certain finfish, for example. The main objective of this project was to determine whether engineered nanoparticles (surface modified quantum dots, QDs) were trophically transferred in a simplified invertebrate food web. A stable invertebrate community, consisting of the microbial loop and metazoan food web, are recognized as important components of productive aquatic ecosystems. Demonstration of such transfer would first require QD uptake from the liquid phase by the prey species (single celled organisms called ciliates) followed by ingestion of the ciliates, with subsequent assimilation of the QDs, by a predatory rotifer species. To that end, we utilized carboxylated and biotinylated QDs and a representative ciliate (Tetrahymena pyriformis) and rotifer species (Brachionus calyciflorus) to investigate the trophodynamics of a model engineered nanomaterial in a simplified freshwater invertebrate food web. QDs were used in these experiments due to their straightforward detection with both optical and transmission electron microscopy, their unique elemental composition that allows nanomaterial quantification (we used Cd2+ as a QD surrogate), and their variety of available surface functionalities.

Major Accomplishments:

  • Quantified trophic transfer rates of quantum dots in simple invertebrate food web
  • Quantified assimilation and depuration (loss) rates of quantum dots by lower trophic level aquatic organisms
  • Provided detailed images of internalized quantum dots using complimentary microscopy techniques
DQs in ciliate and rotifer
Sub-dividing cilliate (top) and mature rotifer (bottom) with internalized quantum dots (red areas).

Start Date:

May 1, 2007

End Date:

May 1, 2008

Lead Organizational Unit:


Facilities/Tools Used:

Confocal laser microscopy (CLSM), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), ICP-MS


Dave Holbrook
Karen Murphy
Jayne Morrow
Ken Cole

Related Programs and Projects:

Environmental, Health and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials

Associated Products:

Holbrook, R.D., Murphy, K.E., Morrow, J.B., Cole, K.D. Trophic transfer of nanoparticles in a simplified invertebrate food web. Nature Nanotechnology. 2008. 3(6), 352-355.


General Information:
Dave Holbrook
301-975-5202 Telephone

100 Bureau Drive, M/S 8371
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8371