Downstream Dilemma: Navigating Microplastic's Impact on Freshwater Symbiosis in the Anthropocene

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Virginia Tech


Annually, it is estimated that 82 million tons of global plastic waste is either mismanaged or littered, bypassing waste management practices. This mismanagement causes the permeation of plastic debris into the environment, which then undergoes natural degradation processes. These degradation processes result in the proliferation of miniscule plastic particles known as microplastics. Due to the inherent proximity to sources of anthropogenic waste, concerns of microplastic pollution and its impact on freshwater ecosystems have recently increased. Until recently, microplastic research has primarily been focused on the toxicological affects felt by an individual organism rather than the intricate interactions that occur between taxa. Only focusing on the individual toxicological impact turns a blind eye on the communities that maintain ecosystem health and stability. To that end, our experiment was unique as it will be the first study assessing the impact of a freshwater symbiosis, as symbioses in the scope of toxicokinetic studies have primarily been dominated by that of terrestrial and marine relationships. This knowledge gap is a serious concern as its argued freshwater systems are more contaminated, than that of other aquatic habitats. To address this knowledge gap, we conducted mesocosm-based exposure-response assays, exposing the crayfish-branchiobdellidan symbiosis to microplastics of fibrous, microsphere, and tire wear particle morphologies while varying symbiont densities. We used the crayfish-branchiobdellidan model system in our study due to its amenability to laboratory monitoring and manipulation. The crayfish C. appalachiensis, common in the Virginia New River Basin, served as hosts to obligate ectosymbiotic annelids in the order Branchiobdellida. Previous research, using the crayfish-branchiobdellidan symbiosis demonstrated that the interaction is a cleaning symbiosis, where hosts benefit from reduced gill fouling while symbionts benefit from increased resource availability. We observed the physical and behavioral changes of the crayfish-branchiobdellidan symbiosis over a 172-day chronic exposure assay. Our results show, crayfish hosts with higher symbiont densities experienced decreased physical growth when exposed to microplastics compared to the control. This alteration in host growth was the result of increased antagonistic symbiont behavior in the form of gill tissue consumption. Our results suggest microplastics caused a reduction in epibiont abundance, thus decreasing symbiotic resource availability. This reduction in resources resulted in a shift of context dependency, thus increasing parasitic symbiont behavior. This study demonstrates microplastics have the capability to shift symbiotic context from a mutualism to a parasitism.



Symbiosis, Microplastics, Freshwater, Ecotoxicology, Community Dynamics