• immunocompetence;
  • phagocytosis assay;
  • microplate;
  • bivalves;
  • hemocytes;
  • fjord;
  • freshwater;
  • contaminants;
  • urban effluents


Immune function in bivalves can be adversely affected by long-term exposure to environmental contaminants. Investigating alterations in immunity can therefore yield relevant information about the relationship between exposure to environmental contaminants and susceptibility to infectious diseases. We have developed a rapid, cost-effective, and miniaturized immunocompetence assay to evaluate the phagocytic activity, viability, and concentration of hemocytes in freshwater and marine bivalves. Preliminary experiments were performed to optimize various aspects of the assay including 1) the time required for adherence of hemocytes to polystyrene microplate wells, 2) the time required for internalization of fluorescent bacteria, 3) the ratio of hemocytes to fluorescent bacteria in relation to phagocytosis, 4) hemolymph plasma requirements, and 5) the elimination of fluorescence from (noninternalized) bacteria adhering to the external surface of hemocytes. The results of these experiments showed the optimal adherence time for hemocytes in microplate wells to be 1 h, that phagocytosis required at least 2 h of contact with fluorescently labeled E. coli cells, that the number of fluorescent E. coli cells had a positive effect on phagocytic activity, that at least 2.5 million cells/mL were required to measure a significant intake, and that a linear increase in uptake of bacteria (R = 0.91; p < 0.01) could be obtained with concentrations of up to 1.3 × 106 hemocytes/mL. Afterward, the assay was used in two field studies to identify sites having the potential to affect the immunocompetence of bivalves. The first study was conducted on Mya arenaria clams collected at selected contaminated sites in the Saguenay River (Quebec, Canada), and the second examined Elliptio complanata freshwater bivalves that had been exposed to a municipal effluent plume in the St. Lawrence River (Quebec, Canada). In the Saguenay River field study a significant increase in phagocytosis was observed at sites closest to polluted areas. Phagocytotic activity varied over time and was highest during the warmest months (June, July, and August), closely paralleling the spawning period of Mya arenaria clams. In contrast, a drop in phagocytic activity was observed in Elliptio complanata mussels exposed to surface water 4 km downstream of a major municipal effluent plume, with a concomitant increase in the number of hemocytes in the hemolymph. It appears that both immunosuppressive and immunostimulative effects are likely to occur in the field and that responses will be influenced by the type and intensity of contaminants at play. © 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Environ Toxicol 17: 160–169, 2002; Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI 10.1002/tox.10047