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Krill could be solution to ocean plastic pollution

The zooplankton can digest microplastic particles

Zooplankton and krill
Krill can digest microplastic particles - Matt Wilson/Jay Clark, NOAA NMFS AFSC.

The minuscule crustaceans at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain could be the solution to our ocean plastic pollution. The zooplankton is able to digest microplastic granules, new research has shown, which means that they could be used to help rid our seas of microplastic waste.

Researcher Amanda Dawson from Australia’s Griffith University made the discovery when she was observing the effects of plastic microbeads (the type found in facewash and body scrubs) on the ocean’s ecosystem. “We realised that krill actually break up plastic – it was amazing,” she says.

“It’s difficult to know exactly what the implications of this could be, but the theory is that because plastics in the ocean are already degraded and more fragile, they could be even easier for the krill to break up,” Dawson suggests.

Co-researcher So Kawaguchi says that this is the first time anyone has observed microplastics being digested by krill. The research was published in Nature Communications and found that plastic fragments excreted by the krill are, on average, 78% smaller than the plastic ingested by the zooplankton. “It’s a new pathway for microplastics to interact with the ecosystem,” says Kawaguchi.

However, one thing the researchers are still unsure about is the potential for toxins (from the microplastic) to be passed down the food chain. Dawson argues that the smaller excreted plastic particles may become minute enough for other plankton and microscopic organisms to ingest. This may create new problems for the entire food chain.

Plastic pollution in our oceans is a growing problem. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic finds its way into the sea every year, which is wreaking havoc on the marine life and seabirds that rely on the ocean for survival.

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Written by Joshua Oates

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