This study investigated the uptake, kinetics and cellular distribution of different surface coated quantum dots (QDs) before relating this to their toxicity. J774.A1 cells were treated with organic, COOH and NH2 (PEG) surface coated QDs (40 nM). Model 20 nm and 200 nm COOH-modified coated polystyrene beads (PBs) were also examined (50 mu g ml(-1)). The potential for uptake of QDs was examined by both fixed and live cell confocal microscopy as well as by flow cytometry over 2 h. Both the COOH 20 nm and 200 nm PBs were clearly and rapidly taken up by the J774.A1 cells, with uptake of 20 nm PBs being relatively quicker and more extensive. Similarly, COOH QDs were clearly taken up by the macrophages. Uptake of NH2 (PEG) QDs was not detectable by live cell imaging however, was observed following 3D reconstruction of fixed cells, as well as by flow cytometry. Cells treated with organic QDs, monitored by live cell imaging, showed only a small amount of uptake in a relatively small number of cells. This uptake was insufficient to be detected by flow cytometry. Imaging of fixed cells was not possible due to a loss in cell integrity related to cytotoxicity. A significant reduction (p < 0.05) in the fluorescent intensity in a cell-free environment was found with organic QDs, NH2 (PEG) QDs, 20 nm and 200 nm PBs at pH 4.0 (indicative of an endosome) after 2 h, suggesting reduced stability. No evidence of exocytosis was found over 2 h. These findings confirm that surface coating has a significant influence on the mode of NP interaction with cells, as well as the subsequent consequences of that interaction. Crown Copyright (C) 2008 Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.