Friday, July 25, 2014

Small Things, Big Problem: Microplastics Uptake in Shore Crabs


Lately I've been gearing up for some nano-particle research, and so I've been doing a lot of reading about very small things. While perusing the literature, I came across a paper published online in Environmental Science and Technology that takes a look at microplastics.

Let’s start with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a very good example of this type of marine pollution. This huge collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean is created by an ocean gyre, a stable circular ocean current that draws in debris where it is trapped and builds up. The collected debris is our litter – plastics and other material that are not biodegradable. They can’t escape the gyre, they just collect. And as they sit out there swirling around, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics.

Microplastics are defined as those plastic particles less than 5 mm in length, and these small particles are a huge marine pollution problem. They are classified into two groups: (1) primary microplastics that are created at the microscale for use in products like cosmetics and drugs and (2) secondary microplastics that are products of the breakdown of larger items. As a whole, they are persistent and widespread – we’re talking worldwide, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just the most well-known aggregation. These microplastics are very abundant, we’re talking 1,000-100,000 particles per cubic meter of seawater! And there is growing evidence of the danger these tiny materials are having on marine life, everything from turtles to sea birds to fish and even zooplankton.

A new study by Watts et al. takes look at the uptake of these microplastics in the shore crab (Carcinus maenas). Previous studies have shown that an important prey species of the shore crab, the common mussel (Mytilus edulis), accumulates microplastics as it filters the water for food (“ventilation”). In laboratory conditions, the direct transfer of microplastics from mussels to crabs has been shown, but then again, it has also been shown that crabs uptake microplastics as they pull water through their gills. So what exactly is going on here? How are these crabs exposed and are they able to clear the microplastics from their bodies?

This is one of those studies where I just love to describe the methods. The first thing the researchers had to do was to assess the ability of the crabs to uptake microplastics (in the form of 8-10 um polystyrene microspheres) through their gills. To do this, they fitted the crabs with masks designed to allow measurements of ventilation. Yep, they put little masks on crabs. Picture that. I love science. Next they assessed the ability of the crab to take up microspheres in their food by exposing mussels and then turning them into “jellified mussel homogenate” to then feed to the crabs. I wonder which undergrad had the lovely job of making gelatin mussel popsicles? To see if the microplastcs were cleared, they let the crabs sit in their tanks and tested the abundance of microspheres in the water during water changes every 2 days for 22 days, sampling periodically. During each stage of the experiment, they measured the abundance of microspheres in the gut and gill tissues, fecal material, and hemolymph (like blood). Using fluorescent microscopy and Coherent Raman scattering microscopy (CRS; a multiphoton microscopy that produces label-free contrast of both the target sample and the surrounding biological matrix), they were able to look at the location of the microplastics within the tissues.

The researchers found that the masked crabs took up 31,000-62,000 microspheres (0.39-7.7% of the initial exposure concentration) into their gills after only 16 hours. But this uptake was not even across the gills, with greater uptake in the posterior gills. The crabs where able to expel some of the spheres, but slowly, still expiring microspheres 21 days after being exposed. Imaging the gills showed the microspheres to be associated with the gill epidermis. The feeding experiment showed all crabs to have microspheres in their foregut and later in their fecal material. The residence time of these microspheres was short, but still took longer to excrete than regular food waste, up to 14 days. Microscopy showed microspheres associated with the internal setae of the foregut lining. But, neither the ventilation experiment nor the feeding experiment showed any microspheres in the hemolymph.

Back to the question of what’s going on here? The shore crabs did take up microplastics in both types of exposure, but residence time is the key. They were able to clear the microplastics they got through dietary means, but they were still trying to clear microplastics they took up during ventilation almost a month later. The authors constructed a model to explain the mechanism of the movement of the microplastics. They found that the crabs tended to exhibit an asymmetry in microplastic uptake in the gills, which they attributed to the pumping mechanism of the scaphognathite being more dominant on one side of the gill chamber. Also, the posterior gills have a larger surface area than the anterior gills so they are more likely to take up microplastics into their lamellae. The crabs were unable to dislodge the tiny particles by normal gill cleaning actions. It is interesting that no microspheres were found in the hemolymph at any of the sampling points in either experiment. That suggests that there is no movement of the particles. It is likely that the particle size they used (10 um) was a little bit too large as it has been shown that sizes of 0.5 um are able to translocate in these crabs. This idea of particle size is something I’ve been seeing with increasing frequency within the nano-particle literature, along with polymer type, shape, and coatings. To that I would add that species is probably also in the mix as gills in crabs and fish are structured differently, and nano-particles have been shown to move in to organs like the liver in fish.

Studies like this are interesting because they show how very small things can become a very large problem affecting multiple tissues of the same organism up to multiple levels of a trophic cascade. I mean, think about it, even we humans could be affected. After all, we consume a lot of crab. How many microplastics are you ingesting when you stop at the crab shack for a quick lunch?


ResearchBlogging.orgWatts AJ, Lewis C, Goodhead RM, Beckett SJ, Moger J, Tyler CR, & Galloway TS (2014). Uptake and Retention of Microplastics by the Shore Crab Carcinus maenas. Environmental science & technology PMID: 24972075


I know I used some technical terms, if you need some help with crustacean anatomy check out Invertebrate Anatomy OnLine.

(image via UGA Evolution 3000H)
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