Microplastics accumulation in gastrointestinal tracts of Mullus barbatus and Merluccius merluccius is associated with increased cytokine production and signaling

Chemosphere. 2022 Aug 2;135813. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2022.135813. Online ahead of print.


There is clear evidence that different marine species can be impacted by microplastic (MP) ingestion accumulating such MPs mainly in the gastrointestinal tract. However, there is still limited knowledge on the consequences of MPs' accumulation in the gut. The present study aims to assess MPs and their potential immunotoxic effects in the digestive tract of two species showing different ecological traits: the red mullet (Mullus barbatus) and the European hake (Merluccius merluccius). Infrared spectroscopy (FTIR-ATR), micro-Raman and electron scanning microscope (SEM) were used to accurately identify the main plastic polymers detected in gut contents. In addition, we investigated the association between MP uptake and intestinal inflammation by evaluating expression and secretion of proinflammatory cytokines. MP abundance ranged from 1-20 items/individual in red mullet and from 2-15 items/individual in European hake. The majority of ingested MPs were fibers, while the dominant colors were black and blue in both species. Chemical characterization indicated polyethylene and polypropylene as the most common polymer types. Moreover, it was observed that MP abundance was highly positive correlated to cytokines (i.e. interleukin-1β, 10, and interferon) and antioxidant enzyme (i.e. catalase and superoxide dismutase) transcript levels suggesting ROS generation and an infiltration of immune cells in the gut. Our findings provide evidence that the induction of cytokine-dependent signaling pathways is one aspect of the complex mechanism by which MPs affect the gut system in fish.

Keywords: Adriatic sea; Commercial fish; Immunotoxicity; Microplastic; Pro-inflammatory cytokines.