You might think of oysters, clams, and mussels as tasty seafood, but a group from the University of Connecticut along with a professor from Florida Atlantic University are using a handful of our local sea creatures to help clean up one of nature's largest pollutants.
"The effects of microplastics on humans really is unknown,” said J. Evan Ward, Professor and Head of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut. “It's a big question mark."
But scientists have discovered that microplastics, or really tiny plastic fragments, are impacting a large number of organisms that humans eat.
"There is some evidence that with the increase in concentration in these microplastics, there may be detrimental effects to the marine organisms that live in these areas," Ward said.
Thanks to a $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program, researchers at UConn will study the use of bivalves – such as oysters, mussels, and clams – and their ability to filter harmful microplastics that are cluttering our waters.
The marine organisms being studied are extremely efficient at naturally filtering water and capturing small particles in their gills. Their gills, or filters, are self-cleaning through a digestive process.
"Instead of having all these little plastic particles floating now they're being concentrated and deposited to the bottom where you can scoop them up very easily," said Ward.
Researchers are studying this filtration process on land, in wastewater treatment plants to see how the marine organisms are cleaning the water that ends up back in our rivers and streams.
"It’s also trying to identify bacteria in the guts, in the stomach, in the digestive system of the bivalves that might be useful in degrading the microplastics," Ward said.
That bacteria could then be used in a wide variety of applications, such as recycling plastic material.
"If you could put some of that plastic material into a bio fermenter or something and the bacteria then could degrade that into simple compounds then not only are you getting rid of that plastic but then you could use those simple compounds for something else,” said Ward. “Like building new plastics or something else."