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  • Tommaso A. Dragani

Unraveling the microplastic menace: exploring environmental, neurological and health effects using zebrafish models

Microplastics, defined as plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size, have emerged as a ubiquitous environmental pollutant that poses a significant threat to both ecosystems and human health. These tiny particles come from a variety of sources, including the degradation of larger plastic debris, microbeads in personal care products, and fibers from synthetic textiles. Despite their small size, microplastics have profound ecological effects, persisting in the environment for long periods of time and infiltrating various habitats, from oceans to freshwater bodies to terrestrial ecosystems.

Environmental and human health impacts of microplastics:

Microplastics have detrimental effects on the integrity of the environment and the health of wildlife. Their ingestion by marine organisms disrupts feeding, digestion and nutrient absorption, leading to malnutrition, organ damage and impaired reproduction. In addition, microplastics serve as vectors for toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), which can accumulate in tissues and biomagnify through food webs, posing secondary toxicological risks to higher trophic levels, including humans. In addition, the physical presence of microplastics in the marine environment alters habitat structure, affects species distribution, and facilitates the transport of invasive species and pathogens.

Zebrafish as a model organism for microplastic toxicity studies:

Zebrafish (Danio rerio) have emerged as a valuable model organism for studying the toxicological effects of environmental contaminants, including microplastics. Their rapid development, transparent embryos, and genetic tractability make them well suited to study the effects of microplastic exposure on embryonic development, organogenesis, and behavior. In addition, zebrafish share physiological and molecular similarities with humans, allowing researchers to extrapolate findings to assess potential human health risks associated with microplastic exposure. Studies using zebrafish models have elucidated mechanisms underlying microplastic toxicity, including oxidative stress, inflammation, genotoxicity, and disruption of endocrine pathways.

The brain-gut axis and microplastic exposure:

The brain-gut axis, a bidirectional communication network between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system, plays a central role in regulating several physiological processes, including digestion, metabolism, immune function, and mood regulation. Emerging evidence suggests that exposure to microplastics may disrupt the brain-gut axis, leading to dysregulation of neurotransmitter signaling, changes in gut microbiota composition, and impaired gut barrier function. For example, studies using zebrafish models have shown that exposure to polystyrene nanoplastics (PS-NPs) disrupts intestinal homeostasis, induces inflammatory responses, modulates neurotransmitter metabolism, and ultimately impairs growth and developmental outcomes in zebrafish larvae.

The importance of funding microplastic bioremediation projects:

Given the pervasiveness of microplastic pollution and its multiple impacts on the environment and human health, there is an urgent need to invest in innovative solutions to mitigate its negative impacts. Bioremediation, which harnesses the metabolic capabilities of microorganisms to degrade and detoxify contaminants, offers a promising approach to addressing microplastic pollution in diverse ecosystems. By supporting research and development initiatives focused on microplastic bioremediation technologies, policymakers, industry, and environmental organizations can accelerate the transition to more sustainable waste management practices and protect the health of ecosystems and human populations worldwide.

In summary, the escalating threat of microplastic pollution requires a concerted effort to understand its ecological and health impacts, develop effective mitigation strategies, and promote sustainable alternatives to plastic use. Through interdisciplinary collaborations, scientific advances, and targeted investments in bioremediation research, we can mitigate the negative impacts of microplastics on environmental quality, wildlife conservation, and public health, thereby promoting a cleaner, healthier planet for present and future generations.

ASPIDIA is at the forefront of pioneering research efforts to discover innovative and sustainable bioremediation solutions for ubiquitous pollutants, including microplastics and nanoplastics. Through an unwavering commitment to scientific excellence, ASPIDIA is leading efforts to mitigate the pervasive threat of plastic pollution by harnessing the transformative potential of bioremediation technologies. By leveraging cutting-edge research methods and interdisciplinary collaborations, ASPIDIA is poised to catalyze positive change in the field of environmental remediation and promote a cleaner, healthier planet for future generations.


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Toxic effect of chronic exposure to polyethylene nano/microplastics on oxidative stress, neurotoxicity and gut microbiota of adult zebrafish (Danio rerio). Chemosphere. 2023;339:139774. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2023.139774.

Medriano CA, Bae S.

Acute exposure to microplastics induces metabolic disturbances and gut dysbiosis in adult zebrafish (Danio rerio). Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2022;245:114125. doi:10.1016/j.ecoenv.2022.114125.

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Polystyrene Nanoplastics Toxicity to Zebrafish: Dysregulation of the Brain-Intestine-Microbiota Axis. ACS Nano. 2022;16(5):8190-8204. doi:10.1021/acsnano.2c01872.

Zhang C, Li Y, Yu H, et al.

Co-exposure of nanoplastics and arsenic causes neurotoxicity in zebrafish (Danio rerio) through disrupting homeostasis of microbiota-intestine-brain axis. Sci Total Environ. 2024;912:169430. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.169430.

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