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​NERC-NRF SEAP Grant to Assoc Prof Federico Lauro and Team to Study Marine Plastic Pollution in Southeast Asia

Published on: 19-Nov-2020


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Plastic pollution is a growing problem worldwide; it has been predicted that if we continue with business as usual there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 (mass based estimation). Apart from the visible plastic waste we see washed up on beaches, there is microplastics - plastic debris less than 5mm in size, which is actually the dominant form of marine plastic pollution and  an even more threatening problem simply due to its abundance and small size. Tackling this issue at the fore front are Associate Professor Federico Lauro (PI) and Assistant Professor Patrick Martin (Co-I) from the Asian School of the Environment (ASE) in Nanyang Technological university (NTU) who have recently won the NERC-NRF SEAP Grant to study marine microplastic plastic waste in Southeast Asia.

The NERC-NRF SEAP Grant is a joint initiative between leading environmental and research agencies in the United Kingdom (UK) and Singapore. It is part of the "Understanding the Impact of Plastic Pollution on Marine Ecosystems in South-East Asia (South-East Asia Plastics (SEAP))" programme. The awarded project is a collaboration between a multidisciplinary team of experts from various countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the UK. The team aims to provide new insights to four main areas of marine microplastics research:

  1. The breakdown of various types of microplastics by microbes
  2. Pathogens and microbes found on Microplastics
  3. Impact of microplastics on marine animals, primarily fish and bivalves
  4. The sources, transport pathway and accumulation areas of microplastics across southeast Asia

Improving knowledge in these areas is crucial to create solutions to mitigate the growing plastic pollution problem in southeast Asian waters. This is especially important because three of the top five countries polluting global waters are from the region.

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The state of marine ecosystems of the region plays an important role in the economy of southeast Asia. Many of the region's countries depend heavily on their marine resources. From fish stocks to coastal tourism, healthy marine environments are vital for their economic growth.

Plastic waste found on beaches and in the waters not only mars a tourist's impression of the destination, but microplastics become hosts for microbial communities. Though plastic is very persistent a few microbes are known to produce enzymes that break down certain types of plastic. This is one area where Lauro and team are hoping to break new ground by improving the knowledge on microbial breakdown of plastics, particularly the most common types of plastic.

Little is known about microbial communities that colonize plastic waste, and Lauro will use state of the art techniques, metagenomics and metaproteomics, to get to know these microbial communities better, learn their composition and functional traits, such as those involved in breaking down plastic materials or producing toxins.

The team will also follow the microplastic particles through the food chain, from the initial consumer to secondary and tertiary consumers to study the effects of accumulation and biomagnification of microplastics in fish.

Pathogens growing on plastic surfaces may spread diseases and disrupt physiological processes in animal bodies, even changing fish behaviour. In addition to that, microplastics can also concentrate other contaminants in the water, such as UV filters from sunscreens, which are a threat to marine life.



By Chang Jing Ti and Anna Lagerstroem



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