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Plastic pollution kills ocean embryos during development

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images – turtles trapped in plastic rings, birds with stomachs full of bottle caps, and beaches littered with debris. But the horrors of plastic pollution go much deeper than what we can readily see. A new study by University of Exeter reveals that plastic is quietly destroying marine life at the most fundamental level: the embryo.

Plastic interference with embryo

An embryo is a tiny blueprint for a future organism. It has all the instructions needed to develop into a complex creature, whether that’s a fish, a crab, or a sea urchin. Scientists have discovered that high levels of a common type of plastic, PVC, can interfere with this delicate process.

“When exposed to high levels of new PVC pellets, the species we examined went wrong in different ways,” said Dr. Eva Jimenez-Guri, lead author of the study.

“Some failed to make a shell or a notochord, some failed to form proper left-right features, some just stopped developing after a few rounds of cell division. They all failed to make a viable embryo.”

PVC pellets, also known as “nurdles,” are the tiny building blocks from which countless plastic products are made. The problem is, they often spill into the environment, ending up in our rivers, coasts, and oceans.

Plastic threatens embryos and entire ecosystem

The dangers of plastic pollution extend far beyond the well-known victims like fish and shellfish. This study underscores the vulnerability of a vast swathe of ocean life, revealing the far-reaching damage caused by PVC pellets at high concentrations.

To understand the scope of the impact, scientists carefully selected seven species that represent the majority of the major animal groups (superphyla) that exist in the ocean. These groups include:

  • Mollusks: Snails, clams, oysters, etc.
  • Echinoderms: Sea urchins, sea stars, etc.
  • Cnidarians: Jellyfish, corals, anemones, etc.
  • Chordates: Includes fish, sea squirts, and all animals with backbones.

The alarming fact is that every single species tested exhibited developmental problems when exposed to high PVC concentrations. This indicates that plastic pollution poses a threat to an incredible diversity of marine life, potentially disrupting the balance of ocean ecosystems and its embryos.

“If we reach these extreme levels of plastic pollution at our coasts – which happens in isolated cases but is thankfully uncommon at present – many species may become unable to reproduce, with massive impacts for marine life, the wider environment and people,” said Dr Jimenez-Guri.

How does plastic damage embryos?

Plastic itself isn’t inherently toxic to marine life. However, the problem lies in the various additives and chemicals mixed into plastics during manufacturing. These additives serve a number of purposes, such as making plastic more flexible, durable, or colored.

One such commonly used additive is zinc. While zinc is an essential nutrient for many organisms in small amounts, at high concentrations it can become disruptive. In the context of this study, the concern is that these additives leach out of plastics as they break down in the ocean.

Imagine tiny, slow-release capsules filled with toxins – that’s essentially what happens to plastic debris in the ocean. Here’s a closer look at the process:


Over time, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces due to wave action and sunlight. These fragments, sometimes microscopic in size, are known as microplastics.


As these plastic fragments degrade, the additives and chemicals they contain begin to leach out into the surrounding seawater. This process is accelerated by factors like sunlight and warmer temperatures.


Marine organisms, from plankton to fish, can ingest these microplastics or absorb the leached chemicals directly through their gills or skin.

Disruption at the cellular level

Zinc and other leached chemicals can disrupt various cellular processes in developing embryos. They may interfere with hormone function, enzyme activity, or even damage DNA. This can lead to the malformations and failed development observed in the study.

The danger is that these effects can ripple outwards. Imagine a fish embryo that fails to develop properly due to exposure to leached chemicals. This fish wouldn’t survive to hatch, let alone reproduce, leading to a decline in fish populations.

This decline can then have cascading effects throughout the food web, impacting predator species and ultimately human fisheries.

It’s important to note that this is just one example, and the specific chemicals vary depending on the type of plastic. However, the overall concern is that plastic pollution acts as a reservoir of toxins that slowly poisons the ocean environment.

What can we do to save ocean embryos from plastic?

The solution lies in the age-old adage: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We need to fundamentally change our relationship with plastic.

Choose alternatives

  • Buy in bulk: Whenever possible, opt for larger quantities of products that have minimal packaging. This reduces the overall amount of plastic waste generated.
  • Embrace the BYO mindset: Bring Your Own. Bring a reusable shopping bag to the grocery store, a reusable coffee cup to your favorite cafe, and reusable containers for take-out food.
  • Shop at refill stores: Look for local stores specializing in package-free or refillable options for household items like dish soap, laundry detergent, and shampoo.
  • Explore non-plastic materials: Choose items made from glass, stainless steel, bamboo, or other natural materials when replacing kitchenware, storage containers, and personal care items.

Support legislation

  • Contact elected representatives: Let your local, state, and national representatives know you care about plastic pollution. Urge them to support bans on single-use plastics, stricter regulations on plastic production, and investment in sustainable waste management solutions.
  • Support extended producer responsibility: Encourage lawmakers to hold manufacturers accountable for the full life cycle of their plastic products, including proper disposal and recycling.
  • Join or donate to advocacy groups: Support organizations that are actively lobbying for legislative change and working to address the plastic pollution crisis.

Spread the word

  • Use your social networks: Share informative articles, videos, and petitions on social media to bring awareness to the issue of plastic pollution.
  • Talk to your circle: Discuss the dangers of plastic with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Encourage them to adopt more sustainable practices in their daily lives.
  • Educate children: Inspire the next generation by teaching children about the importance of protecting the environment. Help them understand the impact of plastic and empower them to make a difference.

Additional tips

  • Get involved in beach cleanups: Join a local cleanup effort or organize your own to help remove plastic debris from coastlines.
  • Support businesses with sustainable practices: Choose to support products and companies committed to reducing their plastic footprint.

Remember, every small change counts. Our collective actions can have a significant impact in reducing plastic pollution and protecting our oceans.

Each species, from the tiniest crustacean to the largest whale, plays a vital role in the delicate balance of the ecosystem. By taking action against plastic pollution, we can protect not only the embryos of today but the thriving oceans of tomorrow.

The study is published in the journal Chemosphere.


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