TAMU-CC Researchers Utilize Innovative Technology to Reveal Composition of Nanoplastic in Ocean Waters

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Plastic pollution remains one of the gravest threats to marine ecosystems, with millions of tons of plastic waste finding its way into the world’s oceans annually. Among the most concerning forms of plastic pollution are nanoplastics, which are incredibly small particles that pose significant risks to not just marine life but to humans as well.  Addressing the impact of nanoplastics head-on is a team of researchers at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, who alongside research colleagues led by Dr. Tengfei Luo at the University of Notre Dame, have pioneered an innovative approach called “bubble tech” to directly visualize and determine the composition of nanoplastics in ocean waters. The results of their collaborations have recently been published in the renowned journal, Science Advances.

“The publication of this work in such a prestigious journal is a great reward for our efforts, considering the innovative approach we’ve taken,” said Dr. Wei Xu, Associate Professor of Life Sciences and a corresponding author of the paper. “We work in a scientific field that can defer to rather traditional methods, so introducing modified or new techniques invariably causes many questions to arise. But now that our article has been accepted, it means that people recognize the value of our research and will find it useful.”

Additional Island University collaborators include post-doctoral research associate for Life Sciences in Xu’s lab, Dr. Leisha Martin (co-first author of the paper), and Dr. Xinping Hu, Endowed Chair for Ecosystem Science and Modeling from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

“The idea behind bubble tech is really simple but creative,” Xu said. “When you blow a bubble, the bubbles get bigger, but when you stop blowing, they get smaller and smaller, and multiply. When they get smaller, they pull everything from the surface to a very small area.”

The application of this bubble technology represents a paradigm shift in nanoplastic detection. Particularly unique to bubble tech is its ability to only require small amounts of fluid to conduct testing versus the traditional method of Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectroscopy (GC-MS) that requires the filtration of large quantities of water, involves the destruction of the particles, and is limited in its application. This new technology means that, for the first time ever, nanoplastic particles can be imaged to determine composition, morphology, and their potential toxicological implications over time, rather than destroying them in the process.

“In the same way that asbestosis was found to derive from high aspect ratio particles of asbestos in fiber cement, so too could certain toxins develop in certain nanoplastics,” Martin said. “Further, when considering that nanoplastics are smaller than a cell, they could bypass the human brain-blood barrier and potentially carry pathogens with them that affect internal processes and protein function.”

Bubble tech proved to be especially useful for analyzing deepwater samples collected on a research cruise led by Hu to the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. The trip was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Through this technology, we have been able to test the water at some of the very depths of the ocean, which has never been assessed in this way before,” Martin said. “We didn’t expect to find plastic down there, but it turns out this is not the case. It seems that the water movement has transported nanoplastic particles at least 300 meters into the deep ocean.”

An important aspect of the analysis was sample collection from numerous bodies of water around the world.

“Plastic is unfortunately quite visible on the shoreline of Texas, but what we don’t see is the sheer amount of nanoplastic in the water,” Xu said. “The particles are vehicles for potentially dangerous pathogens to be transported on and which could bypass the human brain-blood barrier and potentially carry pathogens with them that affect internal processes and protein function. We must develop a better understanding of what this could mean to human and environmental health.”

The next phase of the project will see the research team partner up with Texas Sea Life to test the blood of sea turtles from the Gulf of Mexico to determine the prevalence of nanoplastics in their bodies — the results for which will no doubt have far-reaching implications for biodiversity and agriculture alike.

“Our collaboration with Texas Sea Life aims to uncover the reason for unexplained deaths in some marine life,” Xu said. “This knowledge is crucial for devising effective strategies to mitigate the environmental impact of plastic pollution.”