Viruses on the surface of microplastics are more dangerous

(ORDO NEWS) — Microplastics are associated with many problems – both for the ecosystems of our planet and for the health of each individual. According to a new scientific publication, microplastic pollution has another consequence: viruses on its surface can survive longer and spread faster.

Microplastics are particles of plastic that are five millimeters or less in size. Their source is the huge masses of plastic waste that pollute a variety of natural environments – the ocean, soil, fresh water, glaciers, and so on. Moreover, microplastics constantly get inside each of us – it is found even in human blood.

Scientists from the University of Stirling (Great Britain) drew attention to another important aspect of the problem with microplastics.

They found that numerous particles floating in rivers and lakes collect viruses on themselves. In this case, pathogens receive not only a safe haven, but also a small “fast ship”, with the help of which they are transported over long distances.

The objects of study were two viruses. The first is the rotavirus RV SA11, which causes intestinal infections, the second is a bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacteria) Phi6.

They have significant differences: if the rotavirus belongs to non-enveloped viruses and consists only of RNA and proteins, then the Phi6 bacteriophage still has a lipid membrane on the surface.

“We were able to find out that viruses are able to attach to microplastics and therefore remain in water for up to three days, and possibly longer,” says Professor Richard Quilliam, leader of the work.

The scientist notes that, despite the work of treatment facilities (which should remove all contaminants from wastewater), the water at the outlet of them still contains microplastics.

It moves with the course of rivers, gets into ponds, lakes and often accumulates in large quantities on beaches. Because of this, it was suspected that virions, that is, viral particles of various pathogens, could move along with microplastics.

Of particular danger in this case are the causative agents of intestinal infections that enter the water with feces – hepatitis A, noroviruses and rotaviruses (like the one used in the study). Unfortunately, the fears regarding this pathogen were confirmed: the non-enveloped virus did indeed survive well on the surface of microplastics.

At the same time, the Phi6 bacteriophage was rapidly destroyed due to its additional lipid coat. It is worth noting that a number of dangerous human viruses have a similar shell structure: say, HIV, influenza viruses and SARS-CoV-2, the culprit of the pandemic.

What is the reason for the longevity of viral particles on the surface of microplastics and, as a result, their rapid spread?

An important reason turned out to be biofilms, which form microbes living on various surfaces, including those used in wastewater treatment. Under this protective shell, a safe environment is formed both for the bacteria themselves and for the whole community of other “passengers”, including viruses.

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