NOW WATCH: The science of microplastics: UW-L researchers study emerging field | education

Looking into a microscope and slowly adjusting the focus, Veronica Sanes analyzes tiny particles in a petri dish as they appear magnified on a nearby computer screen.

As he works, Sannes quickly identifies the particles he sees, picking out fibers from clothing, small pieces of sand and gravel, and other miscellaneous pieces until he can pinpoint what he’s looking for—pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size.

These small pieces of plastic, or microplastics, have been consumed by fish in the Mississippi River and show up in their stomachs and digestive organs. Throughout the summer, Sannes will be dissecting many of these fish, filtering their stomach contents and analyzing any microplastics that emerge as part of a research project at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Labeled petri dishes are spread out in a UW-La Crosse research lab Thursday. The researchers will eventually examine these samples under a microscope.

Abbey Mighty, La Crosse Tribune

An emerging field of research, the full risks of consuming microplastics are still relatively unknown to researchers. But studies on the subject show that they appear almost everywhere – in natural water sources, in the air and even in filtered drinking water.

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“I always like to tell people that they probably consume a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week,” said Sannes, a senior at UW-La Crosse.

The widespread production and use of plastics is the main cause of this pollutant, Sannes said. Once in the environment, microplastics take hundreds of years to decompose, absorb other harmful chemicals, and are often mistaken for food by fish species.

Sannes focuses on freshwater fish species while researching microplastics. By the end of the summer, she hopes to better understand the size, type and amount of microplastics appearing in the fish.

UWL Microplastic 1

UW-La Crosse research student Veronica Sannes examines frozen fish at the Prairie Springs Science Center on Thursday. Researchers will analyze the fish’s digestive contents to look for pieces of microplastic.

Abbey Mighty, La Crosse Tribune

Sannes’ work, in collaboration with faculty mentor and biology professor Eric Strauss, is part of the university’s Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship Program. At the end of the summer, Sannes will present his research and findings to other students and faculty within the program.

“My main interest is to see if there are differences between different types of fish,” Strauss said. “Are microplastics better suited to be in one form over another? Are there patterns related not only to the species but also to the size of the fish? And where are they and what is their ecology? I can’t wait to see, we don’t have that data yet.”

UW-La Crosse has been studying microplastics for about four years, Strauss said. This continues to be a ‘hot spot’ of climate change and sustainability research as microplastics accumulate rapidly in the environment.

“The idea of ​​microplastics is not complicated, so [people] understand that we are looking at small plastic particles in the environment,” Strauss said. “Everyone is concerned because people are consuming these things and they understand that they are very, very common in nature.”

UWL Microplastics 3

UW-La Crosse research student Veronica Sanes peers into a microscope Thursday to take a closer look at pieces of microplastic. Researchers wear bright purple shirts while handling samples to prevent contamination.

Abbey Mighty, La Crosse Tribune

While the idea of ​​microplastics seemed relatively simple at first, Strauss said their strength in nature actually complicated the research process.

Because large amounts of microplastics exist in the air and are carried by humans, samples in the lab were often contaminated, making it difficult to determine the true source of the plastic pieces.

Through trial and error, the researchers eventually installed air filters, switched to all glass labware and used deionized water to prevent contamination, Strauss said.

They must also wear exclusively purple cotton shirts when handling samples. The bright color is easily distinguished from typical pieces of microplastic, so researchers can easily identify the origin of the particle if contamination occurs.

“The biggest takeaway over the last few years is how complicated it is to actually study it with the contamination that’s out there,” Strauss said. “That was the biggest thing we had to overcome.”

Prairie Springs (copy)

The Prairie Springs Science Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Abbey Mighty, La Crosse Tribune

While interest in the study of microplastics remains high, the researchers plan to continue their work in this area, possibly moving on to other species of fish and aquatic insects in the future.

“A lot of the jury is still out, this is still a relatively young science,” Strauss said. “Our first step is to see how many microplastics are out there.”

“My main interest is to see if there are differences between different types of fish. Are microplastics better suited to be in one form than another?”

Eric Strauss, UW-L professor


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