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Alerte de McGill. . Le campus du centre-ville restera partiellement ouvert le vendredi 12 juillet. Complément d’information : Direction de la protection et de la prévention.

News

Microplastics are harming gut health

Microplastic pollution is altering the gut microbiomes of wild seabirds, and humans should be wary too
Published: 18 May 2023

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

An international team of scientists, including researchers from McGill University, have found evidence that microplastics in the digestive tract of seabirds altered the microbiome of the gut – increasing the presence of pathogens and antibiotic-resistant microbes, while decreasing the beneficial bacteria found in the intestines.

“Our findings reflect the circumstances of animals in the wild. Since humans also uptake microplastics from the environment and through food, this study should act as a warning for us," say the authors.

“The gut microbiome encompasses all the microbes in the gastrointestinal tract, which help control the digestion of food, immune system, central nervous system, and other bodily processes. It’s a key indicator of health and well-being," says Julia Baak, co-author of the study and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University.

To gain a better understanding of how species are affected by diets chronically contaminated with microplastics, the scientists examined the gut microbiome of two seabird species, the northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) and the Cory's shearwater (Calonectris borealis) that live mainly on the high seas and feed on marine mollusks, crustaceans, and fish.

“Until now there was little research on whether the amounts of microplastics present in the natural environment have a negative impact on the gut microbial health of affected species,” says 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.

In studying the seabirds, the researchers discovered that microplastic ingestion changed the microbial communities throughout the gastrointestinal tract of both seabird species. “The more microplastics found in the gut, the fewer commensal bacteria could be detected. Commensal bacteria supply their host with essential nutrients and help defend the host against opportunistic pathogens. Disturbances can impair many health-related processes and may lead to diseases in the host,” says Fackelmann.

According to the researchers, most studies exploring the impact of microplastics on the microbiome are done in labs using very high concentrations of microplastics. “By studying animals in the wild, our research shows that changes in the microbiome can occur at lower concentrations that are already present in the natural environment,” says Fackelmann.

About the study

Current levels of microplastic pollution impact wild seabird gut microbiomes” by Gloria Fackelmann, Christopher Pham, Yasmina Rodríguez, Mark Mallory, Jennifer Provencher, Julia Baak, and Simone Sommer was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.


About McGill University

Founded in 1821, McGill University is home to exceptional students, faculty, and staff from across Canada and around the world. It is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning three campuses, 12 faculties, 14 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 39,000 students, including more than 10,400 graduate students.

McGill’s commitment to sustainability reaches back several decades and spans scales from local to global. The sustainability declarations that we have signed affirm our role in helping to shape a future where people and the planet can flourish.

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