The Impact of Microplastics in the Gut Microbiome of Seabirds

The rapid decline of ecosystems on the Earth is deploring. 


It is a multifaceted problem and a pillar of the problem is constituted by the overconsumption and mismanagement of plastics. Plastics released to nature crumble into smaller particles that infiltrate into trophic, feeding, chains in ecosystems and accumulate in the members of the system. 


The accumulation of microplastics may cripple host well-being, but understanding which mechanisms are involved in the decline of host homeostasis has a long way ahead to be paved. 


One recent article in the New Scientist highlights seabirds. Seabirds often face a plethora of different sources of microplastics in their long lives. Seabirds being in the higher ranks of trophic levels in their niches exacerbates their microplastic consumption problem. 


The inflammation of the problem is due to feeding on other aquatic organisms which already have concentrated levels of microplastics compared to their aquatic environment. 


Seabirds feeding on easy prey in the vicinity of huge plastic aggregates in the sea and directly ingesting plastic particles in the surrounding area is also another microplastic ingestion source. 


To illustrate the mode of action of environmental plastic consumption on the host, the research group of Dr. Fackelmann examined whether there is a correlation between the ingestion of microplastics and alterations in the proventricular and cloacal microbiomes of two types of seabirds that frequently consume microplastics: northern fulmars and Cory’s shearwaters. 


The research group dissected and collected microbiome and microplastic samples from the gastrointestinal tracts of 85 birds in total. Then, the microbiome sequencing was performed through V4 amplicon sequencing. 

What were the findings?

Altogether, the findings of the study suggested that exposure to microplastics altered the composition and diversity of the microbiome in the guts of two species of wild seabirds. 


The researchers also found a correlation between the amount of microplastic in the environment and the severity of the impact on the gut microbiome. These findings suggest that microplastic pollution may have significant consequences for the health and survival of wild seabirds, and potentially other wildlife that ingest plastic. 


The study highlights the urgent need to address plastic pollution in our oceans and to understand the broader ecological impacts of this global environmental problem. Altogether, the findings of the study suggest no causal relationship between the microplastic-induced microbiome shift and seabird health decline. 


Nevertheless, the study does not specifically tackle a host health decline-related research question. Consequently, further studies investigating host health decline and microbiome shift association may still identify causal relationships. 


The outcomes of this study have demonstrated clearly that microplastics can have detrimental effects on the gut microbiome composition and diversity of seabirds. 


Although the study does not illustrate a causal relationship between microplastic-induced microbiome shifts and seabird health decline, it nonetheless demonstrates that further research is needed to investigate this topic.


With the aid of microbiome research, it is possible to identify certain pathways that may be implicated in a microplastic-induced health decline.


Ultimately, this would enable us to tailor more effective strategies to reduce the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife and ecosystems. By understanding the mechanisms behind the effects of plastic ingestion on seabirds, we can inform better management and policy-making decisions to protect marine and wild animal species.

The Future of Microbiome Research

Microbiome research has become a critical tool to help us better understand the complex effects of microplastic pollution on seabirds and other marine animals.


At CosmosID, our state-of-the-art microbiome sequencing services and data analysis tools can help researchers identify key microbial pathways that may be linked to seabird health decline, amongst many other applications.


We look forward to continuing to work with researchers and institutions in the field of microbiome research and are excited about the potential breakthroughs that this will bring to our understanding of plastic pollution and its impacts on wildlife.


By working together, we can help protect marine life from further damage caused by microplastic pollution.

Get started with the CosmosID-Hub today!



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Barış Özdinç

Barış Özdinç analyzes microbiome research with his educational background in genetics and evolution. As a research analyst for CosmosID, he combines metagenomics and data analyses to identify microbial biomarkers in disease cohorts and evaluate microbiome research tools. His work involves curating microbiome data and creating interesting microbiome content for newsletters and blog posts. Barış Özdinç received his bachelor’s degree in genetics and master’s degree in biodiversity, evolution, and conservation from University College London (UCL). Currently, he lives in Istanbul, Turkey, where he lives with his cat, Delight, and mentors female students in their STEM career pursuits.