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Interactions of microplastic debris throughout the marine ecosystem


Marine microscopic plastic (microplastic) debris is a modern societal issue, illustrating the challenge of balancing the convenience of plastic in daily life with the prospect of causing ecological harm by careless disposal. Here we develop the concept of microplastic as a complex, dynamic mixture of polymers and additives, to which organic material and contaminants can successively bind to form an ‘ecocorona’, increasing the density and surface charge of particles and changing their bioavailability and toxicity. Chronic exposure to microplastic is rarely lethal, but can adversely affect individual animals, reducing feeding and depleting energy stores, with knock-on effects for fecundity and growth. We explore the extent to which ecological processes could be impacted, including altered behaviours, bioturbation and impacts on carbon flux to the deep ocean. We discuss how microplastic compares with other anthropogenic pollutants in terms of ecological risk, and consider the role of science and society in tackling this global issue in the future.

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Figure 1: Schematic illustration of the dynamic changes experienced by microplastic in the water column.
Figure 2: Scanning electron microscopy images of microplastics.
Figure 3
Figure 4: Mechanisms by which benthic organisms could influence the partitioning of microplastics between the water column and sediments.
Figure 5: Graph showing global statistics for the amount of crude oil spilled at sea compared with the increase in terrestrial plastics export into the oceans, as a function of time.


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Funding was provided by the Natural Environment Research Council (grants NE/L007010 and NE/N006178) and European Union FP7 (grant 308370). We gratefully acknowledge helpful discussions with colleagues, including R. Lohmann (University of Rhode Island) for discussions on persistent organic pollutants.

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All authors contributed to writing and revising the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Tamara S. Galloway.

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Galloway, T., Cole, M. & Lewis, C. Interactions of microplastic debris throughout the marine ecosystem. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0116 (2017).

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