(ORDO NEWS) — Tiny parasites can hitchhike on microplastics floating in the ocean.
In the lab, researchers have shown that three common microbes: Toxoplasma gondii, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium are able to adhere to synthetic microbes and microfibers.
The new study demonstrates for the first time that such a transmission route is at least possible. The study was published in Scientific Reports.
Due to the fact that fish and shellfish are carriers of microscopic plastic, the authors are concerned that this may pose a risk to animal and human health.
“It’s easy for people to dismiss problems as something that doesn’t matter to them, like, ‘I’m not a turtle in the ocean, I won’t choke on this stuff,'” explains Karen Shapiro, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, Davis.
“But once you start talking about sickness and health, you have more room to make a difference. Microplastics can move microbes that end up in our water and food.”
To test this idea, the researchers conducted a series of laboratory experiments in which they injected pathogenic protozoa into microplastics bathed in seawater.
The three pathogens the team chose to study are recognized by the World Health Organization as underestimated causes of illness from shellfish consumption.
Toxoplasma gondii infects warm-blooded animals such as marine mammals as well as humans. In us, the parasite can cause cysts to form in our skeleton, brain, and eyes.
Meanwhile, Giardia and Cryptosporidium (known as crypto for short) can cause diarrheal disease in our species.
In laboratory experiments, all three microbes were found to readily attach to microplastics, although more parasites adhered to polyester microfibers than to polyethylene microbes.
The first type of plastic usually comes from human clothing and gear, while the last type usually comes from beauty products.
This is not the first time microplastics have carried pollutants into the marine environment.
In 2009, research showed that plastic pollution transports and leaches chemicals into the marine environment.
In 2013, researchers issued a warning that a new ecosystem of algae and bacterial life had arisen in a large oceanic garbage patch, dubbed the “plastisphere.”
Some of these microscopic particles are able to float on the surface of the ocean, while others can sink to the bottom.
In any case, filter-eating animals that snatch tiny bits of food from the ocean are likely to eat some of the plastic particles. If the pollutant also carries a parasite, the consequences for the food web can be catastrophic.
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