Is Plastic In Food The New 'Trojan Horse'?

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A new study has found plastic accumulation in foods may be underestimated. There is also  concern these micro-plastics will carry potentially harmful bacteria such as E. coli, which are commonly found in coastal waters, up the food chain.

Researchers from the University of Portsmouth tested a theory that micro-plastics covered in a layer of microbes, (called a biofilm) ) were more likely to be ingested by oysters than micro-plastics that were clean. Although the experiment was carried out on oysters under laboratory conditions, scientists believe similar results could be found in other edible marine species that also filter seawater for food.

image courtesy of DisobeyArt via Shutterstock

Up until now, studies to test the impacts of micro-plastics on marine life have typically used  clean, virgin micro-plastics. However, this is not representative of what happens to micro-plastics in the marine environment.  Microbes readily colonize micro-plastics that enter the ocean. In this study, published in Science of the Total Environment, scientists compared the uptake rates of clean micro-plastics versus micro-plastics with an E.coli biofilm coating.  The results were worrying -  oysters contained 10 times more micro-plastics when exposed to the biofilm coated beads. It is hypothesized that these coated MPs appeared to be more like food to the oysters, explaining their preferential ingestion over clean micro-plastics.

The scientists say the implications for the food chain are concerning. The ingestion of micro-plastics is not only bad for the oysters, but it affects human health too. The plastic does not break down in the marine animal and is consumed when we eat it.  

image courtesy of Alina Kruk via Shutterstock

Lead researcher, Dr Joanne Preston, Reader in Marine Ecology and Evolution at the University of Portsmouth, said: “What we’ve discovered is that micro-plastic 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 micro-plastic 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 micro-plastics 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.”

Dr Preston said: “We have successfully tested a hypothesis – this opens the door for more research on environmentally relevant studies of the long term impacts of biofilm coated micro-plastics on a wider range of marine life. We also need to study the transfer of microbes up the food chain via plastics in much greater detail.”

image courtesy of Rich Carey via Shutterstock

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 micro-plastics are having on the food chain.  It demonstrates how we could be vastly underestimating the effect that micro-plastics currently have. It is clear that further study is urgently needed."

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The University of Portsmouth is a progressive and dynamic university with an outstanding reputation for innovative teaching and globally significant research and innovation.

It was rated 'Gold' in the UK government's Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and was ranked in the top 150 under 50 in the world according to the Times Higher Education rankings.

The University's research and innovation culture is impacting lives today and in the future and addressing local, national and global challenges across science, technology, humanities, business and creative industries.

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