How do microplastics affect living cells? Research focusing on irregularly shaped particles

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According to United Nations Environment Program, countries around the world produce around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. This is almost the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population.

Where to put all that plastics or how to recycle them are just two of the issues we face. Another is the increasing prevalence of microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics in our environment. These are tiny particles smaller than a single bacteria that break off as the plastic breaks down, making them very difficult to clean.

Humans and animals could unintentionally ingest nanoplastics in much of the food and drink they consume. Researchers are studying how it affects our health – and among them is Associate Professor Xin Yong, a member of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science at Binghamton University.

Recently, Yong and Assistant Professor Ke Du of the Rochester Institute of Technology received funding from the Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems (CBET) division of the National Science Foundation examine the effects of nanoplastics on living cells. Binghamton’s portion of the grant is $ 266,014.

Yong and Du’s research differs from other studies in that it will replicate the complex shapes that plastic particles can have as they degrade.

“Most of the previous studies have focused on using laboratory-made nanoscale plastic spheres to represent these particles,” Yong said. “They have the same chemical composition and the same surface properties as what we see outside the lab. However, the most important thing is the shape, and in the real world, the shape will not be regular. During natural degradation, particles can never become a very perfect sphere.

Because it is difficult to experiment with nanoparticles collected from the environment, such as a nearby stream, the team must create them in a different way. Their proposal is to make silver particles in a variety of irregular shapes and coat them with the same plastics that break down after removal. There is also a fluorescent component that will help track nanoplastics inside living cells.

“Due to their irregular shape, discarded nanoplastics have sharp edges and tips,” he said. “They could easily damage cell walls as well as membranes, which could kill the cell.”

The Du au RIT part of the project involves making the irregular particles, introducing them into microalgae, and observing how the tiny organisms interact with the nanoplastics.

Of particular interest is how cells roll up and absorb nanoplastics through a process called endocytosis. Yong will develop computer models simulating how this might affect cells, and he will compare those simulations with actual results.

“We start with algae because we recognize that it is a very important part of the food chain,” he said. “The plankton will eat algae, then the plankton will be eaten by small fish. It goes all along the food chain, so it’s a starting point for understanding the absorption of these nanoplastics. “

The two researchers have collaborated in the past, but this grant is special, said Yong, “This is the first proposal that we have written together, and we are really lucky and grateful that the NSF is supporting this research. “

One component of the grant will be to educate the community, especially high school students, to increase their awareness of the potential dangers of microplastics and nanoplastics. Tapping into a hobby that has grown in popularity in recent years, they will be teaching young people how to dispose of plastics in a more environmentally friendly way.

“The plan is to create videos that introduce nanoplastics issues and use 3D printing as something students can relate to, as this has become more common outside of labs over the past 10 years. “Yong said. “You can buy a plastic 3D printer for a few hundred dollars and do a lot of things at home. We can start the discussion about recycling the things you make, and then move on to the larger global issue. “

Yong and Du’s NSF research is “Understanding the uptake of” wild-type “nanoplastics into single microalgal cells with fluorescence monitoring and computer modeling” (price # 2034855).


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