Micro Plastic Research in general
This is a relatively new field and there is still a great deal of micro plastic research that is required in order to obtain an extensive understanding of the presence of micro plastics in the world’s oceans and lakes. The methods for micro plastic analysis are continuously being developed and there is not yet a standardized method for separation of micro plastics from organic matter. Therefore any new research conducted using any method will be an important addition to the literature. I am therefore very excited to be contributing to this new and ever-changing area of research.
Micro plastic research at Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation
The field research laboratory here at Archipelagos is relatively simple in comparison to a university style laboratory. This is due to the lab being situated on a small island with limited resources. However, in this simpler lab I am able to completely understand and appreciate each process that is carried out. I began my internship by reading many past scientific papers on micro plastic research in order to understand the field, and I also practiced micro plastic analysis. In this laboratory, we use the ‘hot needle test’ – the sample is viewed under a microscope, and then a needle held by grip scissors is brought close to any materials that are present. If the objects ‘dance’/jump, then the material could be plastic. The needle is then heated and if the needle melts the material then it can be determined confidently as plastic. This is a relatively simple test that allows the detection of micro plastics. Some samples from specific projects are sent back to the US or UK for further detailed analysis as well.
It is extremely important to prevent contamination in the laboratory. Therefore no plastics are worn in the laboratory and plastic gloves are only used when handling the organic matter in a dissection or when handling chemicals. Lab coats are always worn and all of the windows are kept closed to prevent excess contamination.
My role in the micro plastics team
Currently I am working alongside one other student, Megan Kelly, and we are analyzing the gastro intestinal tract of two different loggerhead sea turtles that were found stranded and dead. I arrived to Archipelagos when Megan was in the process of writing the protocol for the analysis for these turtles. Therefore I have been doing a great deal of research on different protocols for the micro plastic analysis of sea turtles and other organisms in order to gain an understanding of the topic and to contribute any new found ideas. We begun the laboratory work on the 31st June and since then we have been carrying out the processes that will enable us to analyze the contents of the gastrointestinal tracts of two turtles. These two turtles were stranded in the same area 7 years apart. Therefore, the analysis of each turtle could provide an indicator of micro plastic ingestion by turtles in the recent years compared to seven years ago.
I will be finishing the analysis of the sea turtles in the next two weeks, and then I will be aiding Megan to write the final report. In addition, I have begun a new micro plastic project this week (12th June) that I will continue until I finish my three-month internship at Archipelagos Institute. I will be taking surface samples off the southeast coast of Samos Island in order to study the long-term presence of macro plastic and micro plastic content in three different transects. This study will last one year therefore I will hand it over to another intern before I leave Archipelagos. I will do weekly or bi-weekly trawls in a kayak with a plankton net attached behind that will capture sea surface samples. The majority of plastics tend to float in seawater therefore surface samples are a reliable indicator to the presence of micro and macro plastics. This information will provide an indicator as to whether the presence of plastics in these specific transects changes over one year. Additionally, the difference in plastics presence with changing winds and currents will be observed. I am very enthusiastic about the kayak sampling method because it is a project that I will be taking the lead on, and the samples will be sent back to the US with Juliette Humer (Micro plastics team supervisor) for further analysis as a part of her final thesis.