Plastics are widely recognized as a pervasive marine pollutant. Microplastics have been garnering increasing attention due to reports documenting their ingestion by animals, including those intended for human consumption. Their accumulation in the marine food chain may also pose a threat to wildlife that consume species that can accumulate microplastic particles. Microplastic contamination in marine ecosystems has thus raised concerns for both human and wildlife health. Our study addresses an unexplored area of research targeting the interaction between plastic and pathogen pollution of coastal waters. We investigated the association of the zoonotic protozoan parasites Toxoplasma gondii, Cryptosporidium parvum, and Giardia enterica with polyethylene microbeads and polyester microfibers. These pathogens were chosen because they have been recognized by the World Health Organization as underestimated causes of illness from shellfish consumption, and due to their persistence in the marine environment. We show that pathogens are capable of associating with microplastics in contaminated seawater, with more parasites adhering to microfiber surfaces as compared with microbeads. Given the global presence of microplastics in fish and shellfish, this study demonstrates a novel pathway by which anthropogenic pollutants may be mediating pathogen transmission in the marine environment, with important ramifications for wildlife and human health.
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