Unique method to show how micro and nanoplastics are deposited in agriculture

9. 1. 2024
Micro and nanoplastics have increasingly come into the sights of world leaders in recent years. According to UN data, there are over 50 trillion microplastic particles in the seas alone, 500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy. While microplastics have been mapped in detail in waters, more precise data is lacking in other areas. Scientists from the Faculty of Agronomy at Mendel University in Brno, in collaboration with colleagues from the Czech Academy of Sciences, have therefore decided to describe how plastic particles spread in agriculture.

A study by the World Wildlife Fund states that humans ingest about five grams of microplastics per week. That’s the equivalent of, say, one credit card. “Scientists around the world are asking what that amount of plastic will do to the body. We know from previous research that most microplastics are expelled. However, big question marks remain about nanoplastics, which can enter the blood and have also been discovered in breast milk or the brain,” described Pavel Horky from the Institute of Animal Nutrition and Forage Production at the AF MENDELU, who has been conducting research since last year on monitoring the circulation of microplastics in agricultural production.

The aim of his scientific team is to develop a detection platform that could be used to analyse the occurrence of micro- and nanoplastics in the food pyramid – i.e. in soil, in crops grown in the field, in meat or organs of livestock and, in the future, in the human body. “Colleagues from the Institute of Instrumentation of the CAS are currently working on the development of a microfluidic chip. We are using the Raman spectroscopy method with optical tweezers, which allows both the capture and analysis of microplastics,” explained Horky.

The project started last spring and experts are currently analysing the first samples. The research is divided into several parts. “The uniqueness of our project lies primarily in its complexity. We are focusing on crop and livestock production, but also on agricultural land,” Horký said. This year, the scientists will target-feed microplastics to poultry and observe how the particles are transported within individual organs, body parts, muscles and blood of the animals. “In our country, a lot of experiments are done on lab rats or mice, but larger animals are not paid attention to. That is why we want to move towards farm animals, because from our point of view there is a lot of potential to be unique.”

Alongside the animal experiments, the researchers will also be conducting a container experiment in greenhouses. The scientists will apply the microplastics to the soil, where they will then plant the most commonly grown crops – for example, corn or wheat. In this case, they will also look at how the plastics move from the soil to different parts of the plants.

A sub-objective of the project is to map the occurrence of microplastics in agricultural soil near municipal waste dumps. Scientists should have results from this part of the research this year. It is the cooperation with practice that is crucial for the project. “In the last phase of the research, we will monitor micro and nanoplastics directly on selected farms in the Czech Republic. We want to focus on the region of South Moravia and Vysočina,” Horký explained.

The experts want to offer the resulting analytical tool to the commercial sphere. “Just as we currently check the content of mycotoxins or antibiotics, we may also monitor the presence of microplastics in the future – for example, in the context of organic farming. But there are also applications outside agriculture. The method could also be used in public administration. Of course, we are also thinking about human applications in human tissues,” the scientist reflects.

Microplastics enter nature in two ways. So-called primary microplastics are found in the environment directly in the form of small particles. More than a third of these particles come from washing synthetic clothing, while another nearly thirty percent of microplastics are formed when tyres come off. In addition, secondary microplastics are formed by the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic products such as bags or bottles.

The joint project between MENDELU and the CAS to monitor micro- and nanoplastics will run until 2025 and was supported by the Czech Technology Agency under the Environment for Life programme.

Contact for further information: Ing. Pavel Horký, Ph.D., +420 731 454 364, pavel.horky@mendelu.cz, Institute of Animal Nutrition and Forage Production, MENDELU

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