Researchers at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay are breaking new ground in understanding how marine organisms react to the ever-rising load of microplastics that find their way into the ocean.
Senior scientist Patty Matrai and colleagues brought some wild mussels from the Gulf of Maine into the lab and exposed them to specific quantities of microfibers, the same kind seen in fleece pullovers.
They found that in many circumstances, the bivalves are able to quickly coat the fibers in mucous and then expel them. That process was quickened, Matrai says, when the mussels were placed in cleaner water.
She says the scientists were able to establish a predictable expulsion rate.
“For anybody who’s doing a little bit of modeling, whether it’s for the food industry or in the natural environment, those are really important numbers,” Matrai says. “Because otherwise we take a mussel, we look at how many microplastics it may have inside, we have no idea how long it took for that material to accumulate. Is it fast? Is it slow? Now we have a number.”
It’s not clear yet what health effects these microfibers may have on humans or mollusks. But Matrai says the new work will allow harvesters to better predict what they may need to do to purge plastics from their products, and for scientists to use mussels as a marker for the general microplastic load a body of water is carrying.