Friday, 17 January 2014

Micro 2014 - the first microplastic conference

Apparently Brittany is quite pretty; however, at the first Micro conference, I was seeing none of it. Up, dressed, and to the venue before it was light; leaving at seven - mind shredded and voice aching - in the evenings. I was tired, I was alternately roasted or chilly, and I have the standard post-conference cold. I wouldn't have changed a thing.

Two days of excellent, varied presentations on the formation, distribution, uptake, and impacts of microplastic pollution, from speakers from all over Europe and a few other countries besides. Stand out talks included Bart Koelmans' excellent thought experiments on the partitioning of pollutants between organism and plastic, Matt Cole's wonderful work on planktonic uptake, and Lisa Devriese's work on the movement of contaminants to Nephrops (of course, I am biased).

We emerge, blinking in the unfamiliar daylight, for the group photo.
Being such an emerging field, many of the talks revolved around similar topics; where it was found, what it was found in, where it is coming from, and what it is doing when it arrives. However, there were a few core take home messages:
  • Think before you begin your experiment - those little thought experiments can put a whole new spin on otherwise routine research
  • Translocation of plastic from the gut to lymph or other tissues is a hot topic. In my humble opinion, in the event of potential sample contamination, if you can't rule out a false positive, you should try getting an actual negative
  • Fish from both midwater and benthic environments take in plastic (although this appears to be in the order of a few items per contaminated individual).
  • Invertebrates in labs have been seen to take up hydrophobic contaminants from plastic particles (see note below).
  • Read papers carefully, just because they allude to a link between an organism and microplastic, doesn't mean they found it!
  • The French serve excellent conference food (3 course lunches every day!)
  • Natalie is job hunting. Seriously - I worked that into every talk

A few thing in particular stood out for me:
  • In the world of hydrophobic contaminants, the microsphere is currently king (as is the massively unreasonable concentration of contaminant). While these experiments are an indicator of possibility, they are in no way relevant to the high variability of size, shape, and surface area to volume ratio observed in plastics recovered from the marine environment. We also have residence times for very few species, therefore the length of exposure is pure supposition. These studies should be viewed with caution.
  • The increasing level of research being carried out in rivers is encouraging. Mapping the route of plastic is the only sure way to attribute accountability. Until we do this, any contamination will be passed of as someone else's problem, and we will be unable to put financial pressure on major contributors.
  • I am still all for the idea of trophic accumulation of microplastics, but believe this occurs through the ingestion of animals which are retaining plastics within the gut. I have yet to be convinced of microplastic translocation from gut to tissues.
  • Four filled crepes is my limit.

In other news, I got no birding time in, aside from glimpsing a white wagtail on my way through Brest.

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