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Nanomaterials exhibit distinctive physicochemical properties and promise a wide range of applications from nanotechnology to nanomedicine, which raise serious concerns about their potential environmental impacts on ecosystems. Unlike any conventional chemicals, nanomaterials are highly heterogeneous, and their properties can alter over time. These unique characteristics underscore the importance of study of their properties and effects on living organisms in real time at single nanoparticle (NP) resolution. Here we report the development of single-NP plasmonic microscopy and spectroscopy (dark-field optical microscopy and spectroscopy, DFOMS) and ultrasensitive in vivo assay (cleavage-stage zebrafish embryos, critical aquatic species) to study transport and toxicity of single silver nanoparticles (Ag NPs, 95.4 ± 16.0 nm) on embryonic developments. We synthesized and characterized purified and stable (non-aggregation) Ag NPs, determined their sizes and doses (number), and their transport mechanisms and effects on embryonic development in vivo in real time at single-NP resolution. We found that single Ag NPs passively entered the embryos through their chorionic pores via random Brownian diffusion and stayed inside the embryos throughout their entire development (120 h), suggesting that the embryos can bio-concentrate trace NPs from their environment. Our studies show that higher doses and larger sizes of Ag NPs cause higher toxic effects on embryonic development, demonstrating that the embryos can serve as ultrasensitive in vivo assays to screen biocompatibility and toxicity of the NPs and monitor their potential release into aquatic ecosystems.
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