Plastic has become indispensable for human life. When plastic debris is discarded into waterways, these items can interact with organisms. Of particular concern are microscopic plastic particles (microplastics) which are subject to ingestion by several taxa. This review summarizes the results of cutting-edge research about the interactions between a range of aquatic species and microplastics, including effects on biota physiology and secondary ingestion. Uptake pathways via digestive or ventilatory systems are discussed, including (1) the physical penetration of microplastic particles into cellular structures, (2) leaching of chemical additives or adsorbed persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and (3) consequences of bacterial or viral microbiota contamination associated with microplastic ingestion. Following uptake, a number of individual-level effects have been observed, including reduction of feeding activities, reduced growth and reproduction through cellular modifications, and oxidative stress. Microplastic-associated effects on marine biota have become increasingly investigated with growing concerns regarding human health through trophic transfer. We argue that research on the cellular interactions with microplastics provide an understanding of their impact to the organisms’ fitness and, therefore, its ability to sustain their functional role in the ecosystem. The review summarizes information from 236 scientific publications. Of those, only 4.6% extrapolate their research of microplastic intake on individual species to the impact on ecosystem functioning. We emphasize the need for risk evaluation from organismal effects to an ecosystem level to effectively evaluate the effect of microplastic pollution on marine environments. Further studies are encouraged to investigate sublethal effects in the context of environmentally relevant microplastic pollution conditions.
EPIC Alfred Wegener Institut