Microplastics in the oceans bring damage to the ecosystems, but they may be causing more harm than we realise. Not only could microplastics be making their way up the food chain through the ocean, but they may also be carrying harmful bacteria such as E.coli with them.
Microplastics are abundant in the environment. A significant volume finds its way into the oceans by either being washed into the seas from land or dumped plastic waste breaking down into microplastics due to weathering. This interferes with the ocean ecosystems and harms the flora and fauna, especially since animals inadvertently consume the microplastics.
While in the oceans, microplastics also serve as a base of bacterial growth, most of which are harmful to other animals. The bacteria form a biofilm over the microplastics and colonise them. Animals that consume these could end up with infections.
A team of researchers at the University of Portsmouth conducted an experiment where they exposed oysters to microplastics, plain and bacterial biofilm covered, in a laboratory. It was observed that while oysters consume plain microplastic particles, they tend to consume more of the particles covered in the bacterial biofilm.
“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,” said lead researcher Dr. Joanne Preston, Reader in Marine Ecology and Evolution at the University of Portsmouth.
Infected marine life could easily find its way up the food chain on land. Since microplastics do not disintegrate in these animals, it carries the potential of passing on bacteria to more organisms, including humans. The study also found that ingestion of biofilm-covered microplastics resulted in increased respiration rate and oxygen consumption among the oysters, as opposed to when virgin plastic beads were consumed.
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