Published August 30, 2022 | Version v1
Journal article Open

Quantifying the trophic transfer of sub-micron plastics in an assembled food chain

  • 1. Department of Environmental and Biological Sciences, University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu and Kuopio, Finland
  • 2. Department of Environmental and Biological Sciences, University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu and Kuopio, Finland; Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, University of Tartu, Tartu, Estonia
  • 3. SIB Labs, University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, Finland
  • 4. Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), Leiden University, Leiden, the Netherlands; National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Center for Safety of Substances and Products, Bilthoven, the Netherlands
  • 5. School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, UK


Sub-micron plastics (SMPs, size < 1 µm) are potentially taken up by plants. Serious concerns arise that how
far SMPs can transfer from plants into food webs. Here, we show that lettuce takes up 250 nm gadolinium
labelled polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) SMPs from the soil. The polymer type influences the
biodistribution of the particles in lettuce (roots and leaves) and the number of particles transferred from the
plants to insects feeding on the treated lettuce. The SMPs were further transferred from insects to insect-
feeding fish to accumulate mostly in the fish liver. No Gd was released from the particles upon bio-
transformation (formation of protein corona on the particles) in the plants or insects. However, Gd ion was
detected in fish fed with PS-SMP treated insects, indicating the possible degradation of the particles. No
biomagnification in fish was detected for either type of SMPs. We conclude that plastic particles can po-
tentially transfer from soil into food webs and the chemical composition of plastics influences their bio-
distribution and trophic transfer in organisms.


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RiskGONE – Risk Governance of Nanotechnology 814425
European Commission
PlasticsFatE – Plastics fate and effects in the human body 965367
European Commission