A new study has found that accumulation of microplastics in the food chain may be severely underestimated and, even worse, that they can potentially carry harmful bacteria up the food chain.
Over recent months, as part of our ongoing spotlight on the harmful industrial and natural chemicals that are playing havoc with our health, we’ve written about microplastics on a number of occasions. Microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic that are either designed to be that size or become so through weathering – act as vectors for harmful xenoestrogens, as well as causing physical damage to organisms, especially microorganisms and juvenile organisms like baby fish. Scientific modelling now suggests that microplastics are so ubiquitous that they are circulating like a ‘force of nature’, even reaching remote places humans have never set foot before.
Microplastics: A Vector For Bacterial Disease?
Now a new study has revealed that the problem of oceanic microplastic contamination could be even worse than we had previously thought, not only in scale but also because microplastics could be acting as a Trojan horse for harmful bacteria such as E.coli, allowing the bacteria to be passed up the food chain.
The researchers, from the University of Portsmouth, put to the test a theory that microplastics covered in a layer of microbes (called a biofilm) were more likely to be ingested by oysters than microplastics that were clean. Although the experiment was carried out on oysters in a laboratory, the researchers believe similar results could be found in other edible marine species that also filter seawater for food.
Before this new study, all studies testing the impacts of microplastics on marine life have typically used ‘clean’ microplastics. However, this limits their validity in an important way, because does not give an accurate representation of what actually happens to microplastics in the marine environment. Importantly, microbes actively colonise microplastics that enter the ocean.
The researchers compared the uptake rates of clean microplastics against microplastics with an E.coli biofilm coating. The results were shocking: oysters contained 10 times more microplastics when exposed to the biofilm-coated beads.
The researchers hypothesised that these coated beads appeared to be more like food to the oysters, which would explain their preferential ingestion over clean microplastics.
The implications for the food chain are serious. As well as being bad for the oysters themselves, the ingestion of microplastics is also bad for human health, as we’ve already covered in detail. The plastic does not break down in the oyster, but is consumed when we eat it. Now we can be fairly certain that harmful bacteria are also likely to be passed along with the plastics too.
Lead researcher, Dr Joanne Preston, Reader in Marine Ecology and Evolution at the University of Portsmouth, told Science Daily: “What we’ve discovered is that microplastic really is the Trojan Horse of the marine world. We discovered that clean plastics had little impact on the oysters’ respiration and feeding rates — but did have an impact when you fed them the microplastic hidden in the biofilm.
The oysters took in more and it affected their health. It is unsure exactly how much this could affect the food chain, but the likelihood is because the creatures are ingesting more plastic and potentially, disease causing organisms, this will ultimately have a negative effect on human health. We know microplastics can be the mechanism by which bacteria are concentrated in coastal waters and this shows that they are more readily taken up by shellfish, and can be transferred to humans or other marine life.”
Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of the University’s Revolution Plastics initiative, said: “The findings in this research give us further insight into the potential harm microplastics are having on the food chain. It demonstrates how we could be vastly underestimating the effect that microplastics currently have. It is clear that further study is urgently needed.”
Further research will be needed to substantiate just how much of a threat bacterial inoculation of microplastics may be to humans.
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