Microplastics are harming gut health 

Microplastics are harming gut health 

Scientists have been worried about the potential harms of microplastics for years. These small plastic particles, less than 5mm in length, have been found everywhere because of plastic pollution – from the Earth’s deep oceans to remote regions in Antarctica, and even in the seafood we eat.

“Our discoveries mirror the conditions experienced by wildlife. Given that humans also ingest microplastics through environmental exposure and food consumption, this study should serve as a cautionary signal,” the researchers emphasise.

Julia Baak, co-author of the study and a PhD candidate in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at Canada’s McGill University, explains: “The gut microbiome encompasses the entire assemblage of microorganisms residing in the gastrointestinal tract, crucially involved in regulating processes such as food digestion, immune system function, central nervous system activity, and other vital bodily functions. It serves as a pivotal indicator of overall health and well-being.”

In order to acquire enhanced insights into the impacts on various species of diets persistently contaminated with microplastics, the researchers meticulously analysed the gut microbiome of two seabird species: the northern fulmar and the Cory’s shearwater. Both species predominantly inhabit offshore regions and rely on a diet composed primarily of marine molluscs, crustaceans, and fish.

Gloria Fackelmann, who conducted the study as part of her doctoral thesis at the Institute of Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation Genomics at Ulm University in Germany, highlights: “Until this point, there has been limited research addressing whether the quantities of microplastics existing in the natural environment have detrimental consequences on the gut microbial well-being of the affected species.”

During their investigation of the seabirds, the researchers made a significant observation: the ingestion of microplastics resulted in a notable alteration of microbial communities across the entire gastrointestinal tract in both species of seabirds. Fackelmann explains: “As the quantity of microplastics in the gut increased, the presence of commensal bacteria decreased. Commensal bacteria play a crucial role in providing vital nutrients to their hosts and aiding in the defence against opportunistic pathogens. Disturbances in these microbial communities can impair numerous health-related processes and potentially give rise to diseases within the host.”

The researchers note that a majority of studies investigating the influence of microplastics on the microbiome are conducted in laboratory settings utilising exceedingly high concentrations of microplastics. “Through our examination of animals in their natural habitats, our research demonstrates that alterations in the microbiome can transpire at lower concentrations that are already prevalent in the natural environment,” Fackelmann emphasises.

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