Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn. (File/Shutterstock)
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Updated 24 February 2020

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

  • Some of the plastic found in the sea is from car tire wear washed off the road
  • Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean

PORTLAND, Ore: Tiny bits of broken-down plastic smaller than a fraction of a grain of rice are turning up everywhere in oceans, from the water to the guts of fish and the faeces of sea otters and giant killer whales.
Yet little is known about the effects of these “microplastics” — onsea creatures or humans.
“It’s such a huge endeavor to know how bad it is,” said Shawn Larson, curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium. “We’re just starting to get a finger on the pulse.”
This week, a group of five-dozen microplastics researchers from major universities, government agencies, tribes, aquariums, environmental groups and even water sanitation districts across the US West is gathering in Bremerton, Washington, to tackle the issue. The goal is to create a mathematical risk assessment for microplastic pollution in the region similar to predictions used to game out responses to major natural disasters such as earthquakes.
The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn, and many are much smallerand invisible to the naked eye.
They enter the environment in many ways. Some slough off of car tires and wash into streams — and eventually the ocean — during rainstorms. Others detach from fleeces and spandex clothing in washing machines and are mixed in with the soiled water that drains from the machine. Some come from abandoned fishing gear, and still more are the result of the eventual breakdown of the millions of straws, cups, water bottles, plastic bags and other single-use plastics thrown out each day.
Research into their potential impact on everything from tiny single-celled organisms to larger mammals like sea otters is just getting underway.

Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides. (File/Shutterstock)

“This is an alarm bell that’s going to ring loud and strong,” said Stacey Harper, an associate professor at Oregon State University who helped organize the conference. “We’re first going to prioritize who it is that we’re concerned about protecting: what organisms, what endangered species, what regions. And that will help us hone in ... and determine the data we need to do a risk assessment.”
A study published last year by Portland State University found an average of 11 micro-plastic pieces per oyster and nine per razor clam in the samples taken from the Oregon coast. Nearly all were from microfibers from fleece or other synthetic clothing or from abandoned fishing gear, said Elize Granek, study co-author.
Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute found significant amounts of microplastic washing into the San Francisco Bay from storm runoff over a three-year sampling period that ended last year. Researchers believe the black, rubbery bits no bigger than a grain of sand are likely from car tires, said Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at the institute. They will present their findings at the conference.
Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean — but also, possibly, the health of humans.
Some of the concern stems from an unusual twist unique to plastic pollution. Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides, said Andrew Mason, the Pacific Northwest regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done, but these plastics have the ability to mine harmful chemicals that are in the environment. They can accumulate them,” said Mason. “Everything, as it goes up toward the top, it just gets more and more and the umbrella gets wider. And who sits at the top of the food chain? We do. That’s why these researchers are coming together, because this is a growing problem, and we need to understand those effects.”
Researchers say bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam carry-out containers and single-use items like straws and plastic utensils will help when it comes to the tiniest plastic pollution. Some jurisdictions have also recently begun taking a closer look at the smaller plastic bits that have the scientific community so concerned.
California lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation that will ultimately require the state to adopt a method for testing for microplastics in drinking water and to perform that testing for four years, with the results reported to the public. The first key deadline for the law — simply defining what qualifies as a micro-plastic — is July 1.
And federal lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, last week introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a pilot research program at the US Environmental Protection Agency to study how to curb the “crisis” of microplastic pollution.
Larson, the conservationist at the Seattle Aquarium, said a year of studies at her institution found 200 to 300 microfibers in each 100-liter sample of seawater the aquarium sucks in from the Puget Sound for its exhibits. Larson, who is chairing a session at Wednesday’s consortium, said those results are alarming.
“It’s being able to take that information and turn it into policy and say, ‘Hey, 50 years ago we put everything in paper bags and wax and glass bottles. Why can’t we do that again?’” she said.

Genes that helped our Arabian ancestors to survive could now be killing us

Updated 25 March 2020

Genes that helped our Arabian ancestors to survive could now be killing us

  • Researchers find genetic traits that evolved to cope with extreme heat and scarce food are dangerous when we have plenty to eat and air conditioning
  • When combined with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the adaptations increase risk of obesity and metabolic disorders such as diabetes

LONDON: Researchers in Kuwait have identified a section of DNA that once helped nomadic inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula survive the harsh conditions there, but now is believed to be partly responsible for high rates of diabetes and obesity across the Middle East.
The research suggests that lack of exercise and a bad diet are not the only reasons for the prevalence of metabolic disorders in the region — genetic factors also play a part.
The study, by the Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI) in Kuwait, examined more than 600,000 genetic variations in the DNA of hundreds of Kuwaitis. The scientists found multiple areas of DNA associated with health problems, such as hypertension and diabetes, that had evolved over generations.
The findings, recently published in the Genome Biology and Evolution journal, lead the researchers to believe that a genetic adaption that helped the Kuwaitis’ ancestors survive as hunter gatherers in the extreme desert environment is now partly responsible for a health crisis in modern populations.
“The theory was that there must be something very different in the genetic makeup that protected (the ancestors) from the weather, a lack of food and made their metabolism extremely low,” said Prof. Fahd Al-Mulla, DDI’s chief scientific officer and senior author of the study.

Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI) is a Kuwaiti-based medical research center which works to prevent and treat diabetes and related conditions in Kuwait through various research, training, education and health promotion programs. (Supplied)

“This is fine if you live in hot weather and if you do not have a lot of food but this gene becomes a killer if you have plenty of food to eat, you sit in the air conditioning, and you change your environment.”
The genetic variations highlighted by the study were found in and around the TNKS gene, which is associated with hypertension, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Kuwait has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world; about 40 percent of the population is overweight. Other Gulf countries are not far behind, and their populations are plagued by rising levels of associated disorders, including diabetes and hypertension.
While modern sedentary lifestyles are often blamed for this, and clearly are a factor, the study uncovers the detrimental effects of ancestral genetic adaptation on the health of present-day Kuwaitis.
“Our research spots the regions of the genome that might have induced active metabolism and hypertension in nomadic Kuwaiti forefathers, which may favor survival in harsh environments,” said Dr. Eaaswar Muthukrishna, a genetics and bioinformatics expert at DDI.
He added that the study was the first “comprehensive analysis to detect natural selection in the Arabian Peninsula’s population.”
Al-Mulla said the discovery was important not only for raising awareness of the health risks, but also to help identify vulnerable children and advise their parents on how to ensure they do not overeat and increase the chances of developing metabolic disorders.
Along with sounding a health alert for modern populations, the research also sheds light on migration and environmental changes in the region.

“The Arabian Peninsula has experienced several waves of migrations, despite its extreme and varying environmental conditions,” the authors of the study note. “And these inhabitants eventually adapted to the hot and dry environment.
“Archaeological evidence suggests the Arabian Peninsula played a key role during the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa….therefore, the resident populations have a long and complex evolutionary history.”
Most of the ancestors of modern-day Kuwaitis were early settlers that migrated from Saudi Arabia and depended on fishing, pearl diving and seafaring as their main sources of income.
“Our previous studies revealed that the genetic structure of the Kuwait population is heterogeneous (diverse), comprising three distinct ancestral genetic backgrounds that could be linked roughly to contemporary Saudi Arabian, Persian and Bedouin populations,” according to the study.
Muthukrishna said the team is expanding its study to examine Arabian populations in Oman, Yemen, and the UAE.
“We are analyzing those data sets to see what is the pattern that exists in the Arabian Peninsula,” he said, adding that the study, which is underway, will also dig deeper into the Saudi population.