Microplastic fragmentation by rotifers in aquatic ecosystems contributes to global nanoplastic pollution

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Researchers have found that a type of microscopic zooplankton found in both fresh and ocean environments chews up plastics, breaking them more rapidly into dangerous micro- and nanoplastic particles.

Abstract: The role of aquatic organisms in the biological fragmentation of microplastics and their contribution to global nanoplastic pollution are poorly understood. Here we present a biological fragmentation pathway that generates nanoplastics during the ingestion of microplastics by rotifers, a commonly found and globally distributed surface water zooplankton relevant for nutrient recycling. Both marine and freshwater rotifers could rapidly grind polystyrene, polyethylene and photo-aged microplastics, thus releasing smaller particulates during ingestion. Nanoindentation studies of the trophi of the rotifer chitinous mastax revealed a Young’s modulus of 1.46 GPa, which was higher than the 0.79 GPa for polystyrene microparticles, suggesting a fragmentation mechanism through grinding the edges of microplastics. Marine and freshwater rotifers generated over 3.48 × 105 and 3.66 × 105 submicrometre particles per rotifer in a day, respectively, from photo-aged microplastics. Our data suggest the ubiquitous occurrence of microplastic fragmentation by different rotifer species in natural aquatic environments of both primary and secondary microplastics of various polymer compositions and provide previously unidentified insights into the fate of microplastics and the source of nanoplastics in global surface waters.

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