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- Soil invertebrate interactions with microplastic pollution
- Helmberger, Maxwell Summit
- Electronic Theses & Dissertations
Microplastics are an unfortunate byproduct of human society’s increasing reliance on synthetic plastics for packaging, clothing, and other products. Microplastics have long been known to pollute the world’s oceans, but recent work has shown them to be just as prevalent, if not more so, in soil. Early findings indicate similar potential for harm to soil organisms as has been seen for marine microplastics. Yet aside from microplastics’ direct physical and toxicological effects on soil organisms...
Show moreMicroplastics are an unfortunate byproduct of human society’s increasing reliance on synthetic plastics for packaging, clothing, and other products. Microplastics have long been known to pollute the world’s oceans, but recent work has shown them to be just as prevalent, if not more so, in soil. Early findings indicate similar potential for harm to soil organisms as has been seen for marine microplastics. Yet aside from microplastics’ direct physical and toxicological effects on soil organisms, one must also consider their interactions with these organisms, the ways in which organisms may influence microplastics’ formation, occurrence, and distribution in soil as well as mediate their effects on the rest of the soil community. My research is focused on soil invertebrates’ ability to create microplastics by fragmenting large plastic debris. To advance this goal, I first developed a novel fluorescent counterstaining technique, adding a blend of Calcofluor white and Evans blue to the traditional Nile red staining approach. The counterstain allowed microplastics to be visually distinguished from chitin, cellulose, and other biological materials that may survive chemical digestion along with the plastics, making it possible to detect plastics in samples of soil invertebrate fecal material and biomass. I then investigated four soil invertebrates’ ability to generate microplastic from polystyrene (PS) foam debris. Individuals of the beetle larva Zophobas morio, the cricket Gryllodes sigillatus, the isopod Oniscus asellus, and the snail Cornu aspersum were placed in glass arenas with pieces of pristine or weathered PS foam for 24 h, after which I counted microplastic particles in the invertebrates’ fecal material, cadaver biomass, and the sand substrate of their arenas. Z. morio fragmented all plastics and produced the most detectable microplastic, C. aspersum produced almost none, and G. sigillatus and O. asellus fragmented only the weathered plastics. In a follow-up experiment with O. asellus, identical pieces of pristine PS foam were subjected to ultraviolet light, immersion in a soil suspension, and combination treatments to assess the effects of exposure to the elements on fragmentation by the isopods. Plastics immersed in the soil suspension were fragmented to a significantly greater degree than other treatments. Together, these results suggest that large plastic debris could represent a source of microplastics into soil environments, and that laboratory experiments investigating fragmentation of pristine plastics may risk underestimating the phenomenon. My further investigations focused on fragmentation of weathered PS foam by the isopods O. asellus and Trachelipus rathkii, examining fragmentation over different spans of time and the effects of natural materials as alternate substrates for the isopods. Neither species appreciably fragmented the PS foam until after 48 h, an interesting contrast to the previous experience, and O. asellus produced more fragments than T. rathkii. The presence of wood as an alternate substrate did not significantly affect fragmentation. More broadly, these results indicate that laboratory experiments should be conducted over short timescales and do not necessarily need to include alternate or supplementary food for the study organisms. In summary, the potential of soil invertebrates to affect microplastic dynamics, complicating their effects on other organisms compared to what would be seen in a standard ecotoxicological assay, should be considered when assessing this novel pollutant’s impact on soil ecosystems.