Although we do not always notice, the microscopic fibers in our clothing and other plastic products are constantly leaving us and invading our surrounding ecosystems.
Brianna Sander studied the long-term effects of microplastics on host-parasite interactions in wetlands as a 2019 Summer Scholar at Binghamton University.
Microplastics originate from larger plastic products, like polyester clothing, that deteriorate into pieces and fibers smaller than 5 millimeters long. Surveyors have found the microscopic plastic in many bodies of water and even in bottled drinking water.
“With plastic pollution it is easy to think about the immediate effects — organisms ingesting it and facing health effects, stress effects,” says Sander, a senior majoring in biological sciences. “But the next type of question we can ask is, ‘Yes, we acknowledge plastics are going to be in our ecosystems for a long time, so how does their presence affect other long-standing relationships?’”
To answer this question, Sander tested two groups of tadpoles: one exposed to polyester fibers less than 1 millimeter long for 24 hours and then exposed to the parasites, and another group of hosts exposed to parasites and microplastics simultaneously for 24 hours.
Her results showed the exposure negatively affected the second group of parasites and their ability to infect the host. Although this may seem like a positive, as it would save tadpoles, it could also throw off the local ecological balance and negatively affect other populations.
Sander has already started thinking about how to take the study further. For instance, another study could involve exposing both parasite and host for a longer time.
After joining Jessica Hua’s wetlands lab as a sophomore, Sander worked with the assistant professor of biology for over a year helping to research similar relationships, but with a focus on chemical stressors instead of microplastics. Although this experience gave her a solid foundation, Sander needed to branch away from the lab’s history to pursue her research questions.
“I think something that is key in her research is that this is a new direction in my lab,” Hua says. “It took a lot of independence and passion from Bri to bring it about, and a lot of dedication because it meant she had to do a lot of background research so she could actually ask the type of questions she did for this study.”
Sander’s interest in microplastics came after she realized there was a major hole in how the contaminant was studied.
“What exists right now are experiments and research concerning the immediate health effects from the ingestion of microplastics and larger plastic materials, and the other half is surveys looking at what is in our environments,” Sander says. “I was noticing a huge gap in knowledge surrounding microplastics. When I pitched it to Jess, her eyes kind of lit up because she hadn’t thought of it before.”
Sander deliberated for a month between plastics, but she ultimately chose polyester microfibers due to their prominence in human products and many samples of water.
“When I was figuring out where these microfibers came from, I was just sitting in my lab and wanted to look at one under a microscope,” Sander says. “I realized the jacket I was wearing was 100% polyester, so I ripped a string out. That is when I realized that almost everything is made of plastic.”
Sander’s curiosity to look deeper into microfibers is rooted in her passion for science as well as her love of art. By combining the two, she created an Instagram account, @Bri_On_Earth, visually showcasing her experiences with nature in addition to a brief scientific explanation.
Sander wants to focus her future studies on marine biology, and she says her dream job would combine marine biology with art.
While growing up in Rocky Point, Long Island, Sander was mesmerized by the amount of wildlife just in her backyard. Although science has intrigued her since childhood, Sander knows not everyone had the same experience. She says art is the perfect way to involve more people in science.
“For my friends that aren’t in the sciences, they think I am some crazy scientist,” she says. “But little do they know that just them reading my Instagram captions is them engaging in science as well.”