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CUSP scientists interviewed on their research: Can microplastics carry infectious diseases?

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) interviews CUSP researchers from the PlasticsFatE and Imptox projects as they investigate the intriguing world of microplastics and disease transmission.

In a compelling investigation, the peer-reviewed journal and official publication of the United States National Academy of Sciences - PNAS - investigates the world of microplastics and their potential links to infectious diseases. Researchers from CUSP projects Imptox and PlasticsFatE are among the experts who provide their valuable perspectives in an illuminating interview that sheds light on this emerging area of research.

Published on July 26th, the article initiates a discussion about the possibility of microplastics serving as vectors for infectious diseases. While definitive answers remain elusive, the article highlights that, “Early results suggest there’s good reason for vigilance.”

Alberto Katsumiti (GAIKER Technology Centre, Spain), a member of the PlasticsFatE consortium, contributes valuable insights. His research, based on a series of in vitro studies (awaiting publication), suggests that microplastics could potentially enhance the attachment and infection rates of specific pathogens within human cells.

In a parallel vein of research, Prof. Hans-Peter Grossart, a CUSP researcher from PlasticsFatE and an Imptox Advisory Board member, facilitates further understanding of these issues in the article. As a leading aquatic microbial ecologist at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, Grossart’s experiments reveal the swift evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria dwelling on microplastics. He explains that microplastics, acting as hubs for gene exchange, might expedite the dissemination of antibiotic resistance.

Shifting our focus to another facet of this complex issue, Prof. Andreja Rajkovic, CUSP researcher from Imptox and food microbiologist at Ghent University, directs attention to the risks of nanoplastics. Despite their small size and reduced surface area for pathogen colonization, nanoplastics possess the ability to infiltrate cells more easily. Prof. Rajkovic’s work explores how different types and compositions of microplastics influence bacterial communities. His findings suggest that the composition of microplastics, whether polypropylene or polystyrene, significantly influences which bacteria thrive on these surfaces. Prof. Rajkovic and his team have undertaken genome sequencing of various bacteria to decipher which strains are prone to colonize specific microplastics.

In the article, Prof. Rajkovic comments, “I don’t think, in general, there is enough information and enough scientifically credible evidence to support any final conclusion.” He expresses scepticism regarding the notion that microplastics, if capable of transmitting disease, would not have already caused a noticeable uptick in infections. According to him, there hasn’t been a significant surge in infections, particularly concerning food safety.

Nonetheless, the article concludes on a cautionary note, emphasising the necessity of understanding the risks associated with microplastics. Considering that most microplastics originate from the disintegration, wear, and tear of larger plastics that have endured in our environment over time, the issue of microplastic pollution is poised to worsen over time.

Stay tuned for updates on CUSP’s research journey and follow us on social media for more insights. Reference Carolyn Beans (July 26, 2023) “Are microplastics spreading infectious disease? Definitive evidence remains elusive, but early results suggest there’s good reason for vigilance.” PNAS

The original version of this article was published by Sabine Kienzl on Imptox’s website.

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