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In biomagnification the concentration of the persistent toxins (crosses) increases higher up the food chain. Biomagnification.svg
In biomagnification the concentration of the persistent toxins (crosses) increases higher up the food chain.
In this scenario, a pond has been intoxicated. As we go further into the food chain, the toxin concentration increases, causing the top consumer to eventually die of intoxication. Bio-magnification in a pond ecosystem.svg
In this scenario, a pond has been intoxicated. As we go further into the food chain, the toxin concentration increases, causing the top consumer to eventually die of intoxication.

Biomagnification, also known as bioamplification or biological magnification, is any concentration of a toxin, such as pesticides, in the tissues of tolerant organisms at successively higher levels in a food chain. This increase can occur as a result of:


Biomagnification is the build up of toxins in a food chain. The DDT concentration is in parts per million. As the trophic level increases in a food chain, the amount of toxic build up increases. The x's represent the amount of toxic build up accumulating as the trophic level increases. Toxins build up in organism's fat and tissue. Predators accumulate higher toxins than prey. The build up of toxins in a food chain.svg
Biomagnification is the build up of toxins in a food chain. The DDT concentration is in parts per million. As the trophic level increases in a food chain, the amount of toxic build up increases. The x's represent the amount of toxic build up accumulating as the trophic level increases. Toxins build up in organism's fat and tissue. Predators accumulate higher toxins than prey.

Biological magnification often refers to the process whereby certain substances such as pesticides or heavy metals work their way into lakes, rivers and the ocean, and then move up the food chain in progressively greater concentrations as they are incorporated into the diet of aquatic organisms such as zooplankton, which in turn are eaten perhaps by fish, which then may be eaten by bigger fish, large birds, animals, or humans. The substances become increasingly concentrated in tissues or internal organs as they move up the chain. Bioaccumulants are substances that increase in concentration in living organisms as they take in contaminated air, water, or food because the substances are very slowly metabolized or excreted.


Although sometimes used interchangeably with "bioaccumulation", an important distinction is drawn between the two, and with bioconcentration.

Thus, bioconcentration and bioaccumulation occur within an organism, and biomagnification occurs across trophic (food chain) levels.

Biodilution is also a process that occurs to all trophic levels in an aquatic environment; it is the opposite of biomagnification, thus when a pollutant gets smaller in concentration as it progresses up a food web.

Lipid, (lipophilic) or fat soluble substances cannot be diluted, broken down, or excreted in urine, a water-based medium, and so accumulate in fatty tissues of an organism, if the organism lacks enzymes to degrade them. When eaten by another organism, fats are absorbed in the gut, carrying the substance, which then accumulates in the fats of the predator. Since at each level of the food chain there is a lot of energy loss, a predator must consume many prey, including all of their lipophilic substances.

For example, though mercury is only present in small amounts in seawater, it is absorbed by algae (generally as methylmercury). Methyl-mercury is the most harmful variation of mercury. It is efficiently absorbed, but only very slowly excreted by organisms. [2] Bioaccumulation and bioconcentration result in buildup in the adipose tissue of successive trophic levels: zooplankton, small nekton, larger fish, etc. Anything which eats these fish also consumes the higher level of mercury the fish have accumulated. This process explains why predatory fish such as swordfish and sharks or birds like osprey and eagles have higher concentrations of mercury in their tissue than could be accounted for by direct exposure alone. For example, herring contains mercury at approximately 0.01 parts per million (ppm) and shark contains mercury at greater than 1 ppm. [3]

DDT is thought to biomagnify and biomagnification is one of the most significant reasons it was deemed harmful to the environment by the EPA and other organizations. DDT is stored in the fat of animals and takes many years to break down, and as the fat is consumed by predators, the amounts of DDT biomagnify. DDT is now a banned substance in many parts of the world. [4]

Current status

In a review, a large number of studies, Suedel et al. [5] concluded that although biomagnification is probably more limited in occurrence than previously thought, there is good evidence that DDT, DDE, PCBs, toxaphene, and the organic forms of mercury and arsenic do biomagnify in nature. For other contaminants, bioconcentration and bioaccumulation account for their high concentrations in organism tissues. More recently, Gray [6] reached a similar substances remaining in the organisms and not being diluted to non-threatening concentrations. The success of top predatory-bird recovery (bald eagles, peregrine falcons) in North America following the ban on DDT use in agriculture is testament to the importance of biomagnification.

Substances that biomagnify

There are two main groups of substances that biomagnify. Both are lipophilic and not easily degraded. Novel organic substances are not easily degraded because organisms lack previous exposure and have thus not evolved specific detoxification and excretion mechanisms, as there has been no selection pressure from them. These substances are consequently known as "persistent organic pollutants" or POPs.

Metals are not degradable because they are elements. Organisms, particularly those subject to naturally high levels of exposure to metals, have mechanisms to sequester and excrete metals. Problems arise when organisms are exposed to higher concentrations than usual, which they cannot excrete rapidly enough to prevent damage. Some persistent heavy metals are especially dangerous and harmful to the organism's reproductive system.

Novel organic substances

See also

Related Research Articles

Bioaccumulation is the gradual accumulation of substances, such as pesticides or other chemicals in an organism. Bioaccumulation occurs when an organism absorbs a substance at a rate faster than that at which the substance is lost by catabolism and excretion. Thus, the longer the biological half-life of a toxic substance, the greater the risk of chronic poisoning, even if environmental levels of the toxin are not very high. Bioaccumulation, for example in fish, can be predicted by models. Hypotheses for molecular size cutoff criteria for use as bioaccumulation potential indicators are not supported by data. Biotransformation can strongly modify bioaccumulation of chemicals in an organism.

Aquatic toxicology

Aquatic toxicology is the study of the effects of manufactured chemicals and other anthropogenic and natural materials and activities on aquatic organisms at various levels of organization, from subcellular through individual organisms to communities and ecosystems. Aquatic toxicology is a multidisciplinary field which integrates toxicology, aquatic ecology and aquatic chemistry.

In marine and freshwater ecology, a particle is a small object. Particles can remain in suspension in the ocean or freshwater. However, they eventually settle and accumulate as sediment. Some can enter the atmosphere through wave action where they can act as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). Many organisms filter particles out of the water with unique filtration mechanisms. Particles are often associated with high loads of toxins which attach to the surface. As these toxins are passed up the food chain they accumulate in fatty tissue and become increasingly concentrated in predators. Very little is known about the dynamics of particles, especially when they are re-suspended by dredging. They can remain floating in the water and drift over long distances. The decomposition of some particles by bacteria consumes a lot of oxygen and can cause the water to become hypoxic.

Pentachlorophenol chemical compound

Pentachlorophenol (PCP) is an organochlorine compound used as a pesticide and a disinfectant. First produced in the 1930s, it is marketed under many trade names. It can be found as pure PCP, or as the sodium salt of PCP, the latter which dissolves easily in water. It can be biodegraded by some bacteria, including Sphingobium chlorophenolicum.

Methylmercury cation

Methylmercury (sometimes methyl mercury) is an organometallic cation with the formula [CH3Hg]+. Its derivatives are the major source of organic mercury for humans. It is a bioaccumulative environmental toxicant.

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), sometimes known as "forever chemicals" are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation through chemical, biological, and photolytic processes. Because of their persistence, POPs bioaccumulate with potential adverse impacts on human health and the environment. The effect of POPs on human and environmental health was discussed, with intention to eliminate or severely restrict their production, by the international community at the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001.

Environmental hazard a substance, a condition or an event which has the potential to threaten the surrounding natural environment or adversely affect peoples health

An environmental hazard is a substance, a state or an event which has the potential to threaten the surrounding natural environment / or adversely affect people's health, including pollution and natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes.

Toxaphene mixture of chemicals used as insecticide

Toxaphene was an insecticide used primarily for cotton in the southern United States during the late 1960s and 1970s. Toxaphene is a mixture of over 670 different chemicals and is produced by reacting chlorine gas with camphene. It can be most commonly found as a yellow to amber waxy solid.

Ecotoxicology is the study of the effects of toxic chemicals on biological organisms, especially at the population, community, ecosystem, and biosphere levels. Ecotoxicology is a multidisciplinary field, which integrates toxicology and ecology.

Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene chemical compound

Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE) is a chemical compound formed by the loss of hydrogen chloride (dehydrohalogenation) from DDT, of which it is one of the more common breakdown products. Due to DDT’s massive prevalence in society and agriculture during the mid 20th century, DDT and DDE are still widely seen in animal tissue samples. DDE is particularly dangerous because it is fat-soluble like other organochlorines; thus, it is rarely excreted from the body, and concentrations tend to increase throughout life. The major exception is the excretion of DDE in breast milk, which transfers a substantial portion of the mother's DDE burden to the young animal or child. Along with accumulation over an organism's lifetime, this stability leads to bioaccumulation in the environment, which amplifies DDE’s negative effects.

Metabolic wastes or excretements are substances left over from metabolic processes (such as cellular respiration) which cannot be used by the organism (they are surplus or toxic), and must therefore be excreted. This includes nitrogen compounds, water, CO2, phosphates, sulphates, etc. Animals treat these compounds as excretes. Plants have chemical "machinery" which transforms some of them (primarily the nitrogen compounds) into useful substances.

Triclocarban chemical compound

Triclocarban is an antibacterial chemical once common in, but now phased out of, personal care products like soaps and lotions. It was originally developed for the medical field. Although the mode of action is unknown, TCC can be effective in fighting infections by targeting the growth of bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Additional research seeks to understand its potential for causing antibacterial resistance and its effects on organismal and environmental health.

Environmental toxicology multidisciplinary field of science

Environmental toxicology is a multidisciplinary field of science concerned with the study of the harmful effects of various chemical, biological and physical agents on living organisms. Ecotoxicology is a subdiscipline of environmental toxicology concerned with studying the harmful effects of toxicants at the population and ecosystem levels.

Mercury in fish

Fish and shellfish concentrate mercury in their bodies, often in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organomercury compound. Fish products have been shown to contain varying amounts of heavy metals, particularly mercury and fat-soluble pollutants from water pollution. Species of fish that are long-lived and high on the food chain, such as marlin, tuna, shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish contain higher concentrations of mercury than others.

In high concentrations, selenium acts as an environmental contaminant. Sources of pollution include waste materials from certain mining, agricultural, petrochemical, and industrial manufacturing operations. In Belews Lake North Carolina, 19 species of fish were eliminated from the lake due to 150-200 μg Se/L wastewater discharged from 1974 to 1986 from a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant. At the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California, thousands of fish and waterbirds were poisoned by selenium in agricultural irrigation drainage.

Biodilution, sometimes referred to as bloom dilution, is the decrease in concentration of an element or pollutant with an increase in trophic level. This effect is primarily observed during algal blooms whereby an increase in algal biomass reduces the concentration of pollutants in organisms higher up in the food chain, like zooplankton or daphnia.

Bioconcentration is the accumulation of a chemical in or on an organism when the source of chemical is solely water. Bioconcentration is a term that was created for use in the field of aquatic toxicology. Bioconcentration can also be defined as the process by which a chemical concentration in an aquatic organism exceeds that in water as a result of exposure to a waterborne chemical.

Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs) are a class of compounds that have high resistance to degradation from abiotic and biotic factors, high mobility in the environment and high toxicity. Because of these factors PBTs have been observed to have a high order of bioaccumulation and biomagnification, very long retention times in various media, and widespread distribution across the globe. Majority of PBTs in the environment are either created through industry or are unintentional byproducts.

Tissue residue is the concentration of a chemical or compound in an organism's tissue, or a portion of an organism's tissue. Tissue residue is used in aquatic toxicology to help determine the fate of chemicals in aquatic systems, bioaccumulation of a substance, bioavailability of a substance, account for multiple routes of exposure, and address an organism's exposure to chemical mixtures. A Tissue residue approach to toxicity testing is considered a more direct and less variable measure of chemical exposure and is less dependent on external environmental factors than measuring the concentration of a chemical in the exposure media.

Fish are an important component of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's (WDFW) Toxics in Biota Program, part of the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program. Since 1989 fish indicator species have been used to monitor contamination of Puget Sound by chemicals such as poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, and metals. English Sole, the first species studied for the Toxics in Biota Program, have been used for monitoring by WDFW since 1989. As of 2015 the program also monitors copper rockfish, quillback rockfish, brown rockfish, coho salmon, chinook salmon, Pacific herring, and Pacific staghorn sculpin. Exposure and effects of each contaminant are monitored for each species, and more in-depth studies of specific regions are performed if monitoring indicates a contamination problem.


  1. Landrum, PF and SW Fisher, 1999. Influence of lipids on the bioaccumulation and trophic transfer of organic contaminants in aquatic organisms. Chapter 9 in MT Arts and BC Wainman. Lipids in fresh water ecosystems. Springer Verlag, New York.
  2. Croteau, M., S. N. Luoma, and A. R Stewart. 2005. Trophic transfer of metals along freshwater food webs: Evidence of cadmium biomagnification in nature. Limnol. Oceanogr. 50 (5): 1511-1519.
  3. EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 1997. Mercury Study Report to Congress. Vol. IV: An Assessment of Exposure to Mercury in the United States . EPA-452/R-97-006. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards and Office of Research and Development.
  4. "DDT Ban Takes Effect". United States Environmental Protection Agency. 1972-12-31. Archived from the original on 2014-08-12. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  5. Suedel, B.C., Boraczek, J.A., Peddicord, R.K., Clifford, P.A. and Dillon, T.M., 1994. Trophic transfer and biomagnification potential of contaminants in aquatic ecosystems. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 136: 21–89.
  6. Gray, J.S., 2002. Biomagnification in marine systems: the perspective of an ecologist. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 45: 46–52.