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Microplastics make marine worms sick
Date:12/2/2013

Tiny bits of plastic trash could spell big trouble for marine life, starting with the worms, say a team of researchers from Plymouth University and the University of Exeter who report their evidence in a pair of studies in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on December 2. Those marine worms play a key ecological role as an important source of food for other animals.

Work by Stephanie Wright from the University of Exeter found that if ocean sediments are heavily contaminated with microplastics, marine lugworms eat less and their energy levels suffer. A separate report, from Mark Anthony Browne on work performed at Plymouth University, shows that ingesting microplastic can also reduce the health of lugworms by delivering harmful chemicals, including hydrocarbons, antimicrobials, and flame retardants, to them.

"These chemicals are persistent, meaning they could accumulate in the tissue of organisms and take a long time to break down," says Richard Thompson of Plymouth University. "Our laboratory studies provide the first clear evidence that microplastics could cause harm and show that this could result from both the physical presence of ingested plastic and chemical transfer. Our next steps will be to establish the full implications of these findings for organisms in natural habitats."

In addition to their role in the food chain, "lugworms also feed on and churn the organic content in sediments, much as earthworms in the soil do," Wright explains. "If worms in contaminated environments were to reduce feeding levels by an amount comparable to that seen in that lab, it would mean significantly less turnover of sediment. In an area the size of the Wadden Sea, for instance, sediment turnover could drop by more than 130,000 liters each year."

The microplastic levels used in the two papers approximate those found at highly contaminated sites. There are many other organismsincluding starfish, sea cucumbers, and fiddler crab
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Contact: Mary Beth O'Leary
moleary@cell.com
617-397-2802
Cell Press
Source:Eurekalert  

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