05 Sep 2023 PROJECT NEWS

Exploring the microplastic enigma: Can the tiny particles carry infectious disease?

PNAS interviews CUSP and Imptox researchers as they delve into the intriguing world of microplastics and disease transmission.

In a compelling investigation, the respected PNAS journal, the official publication of the United States National Academy of Sciences, delves into the world of microplastics and their potential links to infectious disease. Researchers, including those from Imptox and other CUSP projects, are among the experts who provide valuable insights in an illuminating interview, shedding light on this emerging area of research.

Published on July 26th, the article initiates a conversation about the possibility of microplastics serving as vectors for infectious disease. While definitive answers remain elusive, the article cautiously highlights, "early results suggest there's good reason for vigilance."

Alberto Katsumiti, a PlasticsFatE member affiliated with the GAIKER Technology Centre in Zamudio, Spain, contributes valuable insights. His research, based on a series of in vitro studies (awaiting publication), suggests that microplastics could potentially enhance the attachment and infection rates of specific pathogens within human cells.

In a parallel vein of research, Prof. Hans-Peter Grossart, a CUSP researcher from PlasticsFatE and an Imptox Advisory Board member, provides further insights. As a leading aquatic microbial ecologist at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, Grossart's experiments reveal the swift evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria dwelling on microplastics. He explains that microplastics, acting as hubs for gene exchange, might expedite the dissemination of antibiotic resistance.

Shifting our focus to another facet of this complex issue, Prof. Andreja Rajkovic, CUSP researcher from Imptox and food microbiologist at Ghent University, directs attention to the perils of nanoplastics. Despite their small size and reduced surface area for pathogen colonization, nanoplastics possess the ability to infiltrate cells more readily. Prof. Rajkovic's work delves into understanding how different types and compositions of microplastics influence bacterial communities. His findings suggest that the composition of microplastics, whether polypropylene or polystyrene, significantly influences which bacteria thrive on these surfaces. Prof. Rajkovic and his team have undertaken genome sequencing of various bacteria to decipher which strains are prone to colonize specific microplastics.

In the article, Prof. Rajkovic remarks, "I don't think, in general, there is enough information and enough scientifically credible evidence to support any final conclusion." He expresses skepticism regarding the notion that microplastics, if capable of transmitting disease, would not have already caused a noticeable uptick in infections. According to him, there hasn't been a substantial surge in infections, particularly concerning food safety.

Nonetheless, the article concludes on a cautionary note, emphasizing the necessity of understanding the risks associated with microplastics. Considering that most microplastics originate from the disintegration of larger plastics that endure in our environment for centuries, the issue of microplastics pollution is poised to worsen over time.

Imptox, alongside its four sister projects within CUSP, unites 75 organizations across 21 countries in a collective effort to comprehend these risks and unravel the potential effects of micro- and nanoplastics on human health.

Stay tuned for updates on our research journey, and follow us on social media for more insights.


Carolyn Beans, July 2023, "Are microplastics spreading infectious disease? Definitive evidence remains elusive, but early results suggest there’s good reason for vigilance." PNAS, 120 (31) e2311253120, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2311253120