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Less impact than suspected: Dietary exposure of three-spined sticklebacks to microplastic fibers does not affect their body condition and immune parameters

Microplastic fibers are frequent anthropogenic contaminants in most aquatic environments and have consequently been detected in the digestive tract of many fish species. Upon ingestion, microplastic fibers pose risks of interference with nutrient uptake, impaired intestinal health, and as a consequence may alter growth performance and fitness. In addition, foreign particles such as fibers might cause tissue irritations and stress, and thus interfere with immune parameters. In nature, fish regularly encounter microplastic fibers as well as fiber debris from natural sources and materials. Thus, we wanted to test the potential impact of microplastic fibers on growth, organosomatic indices, and immune parameters of subadult fish and compare these to possible effects caused by natural fibers. We administered sticklebacks diets, which were supplemented with either polyester or cotton fibers (each at concentrations of 0.2 mg/g and 2 mg/g feed) or a control diet without fiber supplementation for nine weeks. Mortalities did not occur and sticklebacks grew equally well across treatments. Neither organosomatic indices nor immune parameters revealed significant differences between treatments. While natural differences between males and females were observed for some parameters, no treatment-related gender-specific effects were detected. Our results suggest that the dietary uptake of polyester fibers does not affect growth, body condition, gonad development, and immunity of sticklebacks – even at fiber concentrations higher than what can be encountered in the wild. Furthermore, virgin microplastic fibers do not seem to affect fish differently than fibers from natural origin. The present study implies that at least some species are resilient towards pollution with (virgin) microplastic fibers even at high concentrations.



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