Nano-plastics induce aquatic particulate organic matter (microgels) formation.

Research paper by Ruei-Feng RF Shiu, Carlos I CI Vazquez, Yi-Yen YY Tsai, Gabriela V GV Torres, Chi-Shuo CS Chen, Peter H PH Santschi, Antonietta A Quigg, Wei-Chun WC Chin

Indexed on: 01 Dec '19Published on: 30 Nov '19Published in: Science of the Total Environment


The pervasive presence of plastic waste in the aquatic environment is widely viewed as one of the most serious environmental challenges for current and future generations. Microplastics ultimately degrade into nano and smaller-sizes. In turn, their biological and ecological impacts become more complicated and ambiguous. Nano-plastic particles travel from freshwater systems to estuarine and oceanic regions, during which they can interact with dissolved organic matter (DOM) to form microgels. Microgel formation is ubiquitous in aquatic systems, serving as a shunt between DOM and particulate organic matter (POM), as well as playing key roles in particle aggregation/sedimentation and pollutant transport. Currently the influences and mechanisms of the aggregation behavior and environmental fate of nano-plastics in different aquatic environments is poorly understood. Here, we report that 25 nm polystyrene nano-particles in lake and river water can promote POM (microgel) formation and accelerate the DOM-POM transition. We also adjusted various salinities of water samples to simulate scenarios based on plastic transport in waters flowing from rivers to seas. The results indicate polystyrene nanoparticles can interact with organic matter to form large organic particles, which may undergo further settling in response to specific salinity levels. Polystyrene-induced microgel formation appears to involve the hydrophobic interactions between plastics and DOM. Our data provides much needed information for modeling and understanding the retention and sedimentation of nano-plastics. We show that nano-plastics alter the DOM-POM shunt to cause unanticipated perturbations in the functionality of aquatic ecosystems. Copyright © 2019 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.