Experiment Shows Biological Interactions of Microplastics in Watery Environment (2024)

Scientists strive to understand full ecological impacts of plastics on aquatic food webs

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Scientists have learned over the years that when aquatic organisms such as zooplankton become exposed to microplastics, they eat poorly. Research at Purdue University now shows that their plastic-induced eating difficulties also limit the ability of zooplankton to control algal proliferation.

“If the control of algae by zooplankton is confounded by the presence of microplastics, that could be a cause for concern,” saidTomas Höök, professor offorestry and natural resourcesat Purdue.

When algae bloom out of control, this presents a problem because some species produce toxins. Also, algal blooms can be associated with pea-soupy, unattractive bodies of water and contribute to hypoxia, a low-oxygen condition that may lead to fish kills.

Zooplankton are tiny creatures that live in watery environments and form the base of the food web in many aquatic environments. The organisms examined for the study were two common types of crustaceous zooplankton that differ in size and feeding behavior.

The study highlights how rife plastic has become in the environment. “There’s plastic dust in the air. We’re all potentially breathing plastic now,” said Höök, who also directs theIllinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program. Plastics are everywhere, he added, including in a lot of the food we eat.

Chris Malinowski, director of research and conservation at theOcean First Institute, said, “The flow of plastics through the environment is reaching every part of the world.” Plastics are found atop snowcapped mountain peaks and on the ocean floor. The rivers in between serve as the vessels that help spread microplastics.

Höök, Malinowski and two co-authors presentedtheir findingsin the journal Science of the Total Environment. The study was among the first to examine the effects of microplastics in a simple food web design. This involved investigating impacts on how zooplankton feed on algae in the presence of different environmentally realistic microplastic concentrations and when faced with risk of predation from fish.

“Microplastics aren’t just having an effect on consumer organisms. They also have the potential to release algae from predatory control,” Höök said.Experiment Shows Biological Interactions of Microplastics in Watery Environment (1)

When the researchers noticed increased algal densities in their laboratory experiment after adding higher microplastic concentrations, they were uncertain about its cause. Either the microplastics were getting in the way of zooplankton and preventing normal consumption rates of algae, or they served as better surfaces for algal growth.

Follow-up tests showed that adding microplastics without the zooplankton failed to increase algae production. The microplastics were somehow affecting predation on algae. “That was somewhat surprising,” noted Malinowski, a former Purdue postdoctoral scholar.

Plastics can accumulate in biological tissue, similar to mercury and other heavy metals. But plastics also cause gut blockage and related effects that impact feeding, he said. And even though plastics break down in the environment into smaller and smaller fragments, which is not necessarily a good thing, the process plays out over many years.

“Different plastic products that we use every day, like cups, straws and bags, don’t truly go away,” Malinowski noted. Eventually, they degrade into microplastic particles, which by definition measure less than 5 millimeters, the approximate size of a pencil lead. Scientists find it difficult to sample particles of that size in the environment.

“In terms of the impact that microplastics have in the environment, there’s a level of uncertainty with these very small particles, in part simply because they are just very small, and also because they take on different shapes, sizes, configurations and surface properties,” Malinowski noted. “All of the research that has gone into this already and all that needs to be done is happening at too slow of a rate relative to the amount of plastic being produced, and this is alarming because we don’t truly understand all of the consequences.”

Co-authors of the paper include Catherine Searle, associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue, and James Schaber, formerly of Purdue’s Bindley Bioscience Center. The work was funded by Purdue University’s College of Agriculture and the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Writer:Steve Koppes

Media contact:Maureen Manier,mmanier@purdue.edu

Sources:Tomas Höök,thook@purdue.edu; Chris Malinowski,chris@oceanfirstinstitute.org.

Agricultural Communications:765-494-8415;

Maureen Manier, Department Head,mmanier@purdue.edu

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What are the biological methods for the removal of microplastics from water? ›

Biological Filtration: Here, living organisms such as bacteria, algae, or biofilms degrade or metabolize microplastics in water. While still in the early stages of development, biological filtration shows promise as a sustainable and environmentally friendly method for removing microplastics from water and wastewater.

What is the biological impact of microplastics? ›

Microplastics may reduce the availability of nutrients in microalgae (16) or be directly ingested by organisms, causing greater impact on the food web through the bioaccumulation of the food chain.

What happens to microplastics in water? ›

To further complicate matters, microplastics in the ocean can bind with other harmful chemicals before being ingested by marine organisms. Scientists are still unsure whether consumed microplastics are harmful to human or animal health—and if so, what specific dangers they may pose.

How are microplastics affecting the environment? ›

These particles can travel thousands of miles and affect the formation of clouds, which means they have the potential to impact temperature, rainfall, and even climate change. Plastic has become an obvious pollutant over recent decades, choking turtles and seabirds, clogging up our landfills and waterways.

What removes microplastics from water? ›

As reported in ACS' Environmental Science & Technology Letters, boiling and filtering calcium-containing tap water could help remove nearly 90% of the nano- and microplastics present.

What is the method of microplastics in water? ›

Filtration or sieving. Filtering or sieving is the most frequent method in separation of microplastics from water samples and for the supernatant containing plastics from density separation of sediment samples. Filter's pore size or sieve's mesh can vary greatly.

Can your body get rid of microplastics? ›

Can Microplastics Be Eliminated From the Body Naturally? Once ingested and accumulated in tissues and organs, microplastics cannot naturally be eliminated from the body. However, some strategies could help reduce microplastic exposure, such as minimizing plastic use and choosing natural alternatives.

Are microplastics actually harmful? ›

Microplastics can also affect the human body by stimulating the release of endocrine disruptors. In addition, microplastics can carry other toxic chemicals such as heavy metals and organic pollutants during adsorption, which can adversely affect the human body (i.e., the final consumer).

Who is most affected by microplastics? ›

According to the Commission, health consequences of exposure to plastic pollution disproportionately affect the poor, minorities, marginalized populations, and people in the Global South.

What are the two big problems with microplastics? ›

Microplastics Contaminate Compost

Once composted, these products shed macro- and microfragments of plastic that do not biodegrade and may be ingested by living organisms. Microplastics are known to accumulate persistent organic pollutants that can be transferred to the bodies of living things.

How to detox from microplastics? ›

This can aid the bodies' natural detoxification processes.
  1. Prioritize a healthy, plastic-free diet. ...
  2. Transform your cooking space. ...
  3. Avoid plastic takeout. ...
  4. Avoid single-use plastic. ...
  5. Avoid canned foods. ...
  6. Try a plastic-free personal care routine. ...
  7. Avoid microplastics in drinking water. ...
  8. Eco-friendly clothing and laundry.
May 3, 2024

Can we avoid microplastics? ›

To avoid the microplastics, simply switch to metal or glass reusable water bottles. When it comes to the microplastics in our tap water, new research suggests that boiling your tap water can reduce the amount of microplastics you're consuming, too.

What is the biggest source of microplastics? ›

The most common microplastics in the environment are microfibers – plastic fragments shaped like tiny threads or filaments. Microfibers come from many sources, including cigarette butts, fishing nets and ropes, but the biggest source is synthetic fabrics, which constantly shed them.

What are the diseases caused by microplastics? ›

inflammation (linked to cancer, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and more), genotoxicity (damage that causes mutations that can lead to cancer), chronic diseases (such as atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases) and.

What are 10 harmful effects of plastics? ›

10 Diseases Caused by Plastic

It's also linked to respiratory disease, asthma, and cardiovascular disease. And that's just to name the physical effects. Impact plastic has on wildlife. Plastic and its resulting degradation to landscapes may cause severe mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression.

What are the methods of microplastic extraction? ›

Several microplastic's extraction approaches from biological tissues emerged (i.e., alkaline, acids, oxidizing and enzymatic). However, criteria used for the selection of the extraction method have yet to be clarified.

What are the methods of filtering microplastics? ›

Here are some effective ways to remove microplastics from tap water:
  • Use a water filter. One of the most effective ways to remove microplastics from tap water is to use a water filter. ...
  • Use a filtering water bottle. ...
  • Distill your water. ...
  • Reduce plastic use.

How do you isolate microplastics from water? ›

One of the most efficient ways to remove microplastics from your source water is to use a reverse osmosis system (RO) in your kitchen. This system removes the impurities in your home directly at the point of use. Most contaminants are removed by a RO system, making the water in your home safe for drinking and cooking.

What are the methods of microplastic separation? ›

Flotation is used to separate plastic from denser sediment. Typical density separations for plastics employ salt solutions to render plastics buoyant. The salt selection balances particle recovery, processing cost, and environmental impact. (7) Plastics float to the surface passively or assisted by elutriation.

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