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Journal: The Science of the total environment


Plants, animals and humans, are colonized by microorganisms (microbiota) and transiently exposed to countless others. The microbiota affects the development and function of essentially all organ systems, and contributes to adaptation and evolution, while protecting against pathogenic microorganisms and toxins. Genetics and lifestyle factors, including diet, antibiotics and other drugs, and exposure to the natural environment, affect the composition of the microbiota, which influences host health through modulation of interrelated physiological systems. These include immune system development and regulation, metabolic and endocrine pathways, brain function and epigenetic modification of the genome. Importantly, parental microbiotas have transgenerational impacts on the health of progeny. Humans, animals and plants share similar relationships with microbes. Research paradigms from humans and other mammals, amphibians, insects, planktonic crustaceans and plants demonstrate the influence of environmental microbial ecosystems on the microbiota and health of organisms, and indicate links between environmental and internal microbial diversity and good health. Therefore, overlapping compositions, and interconnected roles of microbes in human, animal and plant health should be considered within the broader context of terrestrial and aquatic microbial ecosystems that are challenged by the human lifestyle and by agricultural and industrial activities. Here, we propose research priorities and organizational, educational and administrative measures that will help to identify safe microbe-associated health-promoting modalities and practices. In the spirit of an expanding version of “One health” that includes environmental health and its relation to human cultures and habits (EcoHealth), we urge that the lifestyle-microbiota-human health nexus be taken into account in societal decision making.

Concepts: Immune system, Archaea, Bacteria, Organism, Eukaryote, Species, Natural environment, Microorganism


To assess the ecological impacts of two independent accidental bitumen releases from two steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) wells in the Athabasca oil sands region, a multiple lines of evidence (LOE) approach was developed. Following the release in 2010, action was taken to minimize environmental impact, including the selective removal of the most highly impacted vegetation and the use of oil socks to minimize possible runoff. An ecological risk assessment (ERA) was then conducted based on reported concentrations of bitumen related contaminants in soil, vegetation, and water. Results of biological assessments conducted at the site were also included in the risk characterization. Overall, the conclusion of the ERA was that the likelihood of long-term adverse health effects to ecological receptors in the area was negligible. To provide evidence for this conclusion, a small mammal sampling plan targeting Southern red-back voles (Myodes gapperi) was carried out at two sites and two relevant reference areas. Voles were readily collected at all locations and no statistically significant differences in morphometric measurements (i.e., body mass, length, foot length, and adjusted liver weight) were found between animals collected from impact zones of varying levels of coverage. Additionally, no trends corresponding with bitumen coverage were observed with respect to metal body burden in voles for metals that were previously identified in the source bitumen. Hepatic ethoxyresorufin-O-deethylase (EROD) activity was statistically significantly elevated in voles collected from the high impact zones of sites compared to those collected from the reference areas, a finding that is indicative of continued exposure to contaminants. However, this increase in EROD was not correlated with any observable adverse population-wide biological outcomes. Therefore the biological sampling program supported the conclusion of the initial ERA and supported the hypothesis of no significant long-term population-wide ecological impact of the accidental bitumen releases.

Concepts: Evaluation, Ecology, Petroleum, Statistical significance, Oil sands, Athabasca Oil Sands, Steam assisted gravity drainage, Heavy crude oil


Coupled measurements of nitrate (NO3(-)), nitrogen (N), and oxygen (O) isotopic composition (δ(15)NNO3 and δ(18)ONO3) were used to investigate the sources and processes of N cycling, while the microbial source tracking (MST) method was used to identify microbiological pollution in the surface water of the Sava River Basin (SRB) in autumn in 2014 and 2015 during high and low water discharge. Atmospheric nitrate deposition or nitrate-containing fertilizers were found not to be significant sources of riverine nitrate in the SRB. The ranges of isotope values suggest that NO3(-) in the SRB derives from soil nitrification, sewage, and/or manure, which were further supported by MST analysis. Microbiological indicators show the existence of hotspots of fecal pollution in the SRB, which are human associated. Long-term observations indicate persistent fecal contamination at selected locations caused by continuous discharge of untreated wastewaters into the SRB.

Concepts: Bacteria, Water, Nitrogen, Hydrology, Isotope, Guano, Manure, Danube


The mega river ecosystem of the Yangtze River was once home to diverse aquatic megafauna but is increasingly affected by various anthropogenic stressors that have resulted in continuous loss of biodiversity, such as the probable extinction of Yangtze River Dolphin. The Chinese paddlefish, Psephurus gladius, was one of only two extant members of a relict lineage that was most diverse and widespread 34-75 million years ago. It is also one of the largest freshwater fish species, reaching up to 7 m in length. The Chinese paddlefish was once common in the Yangtze River, with c.25 t being harvested per annum during the 1970s. Populations have, however, declined drastically since the late 1970s as a result of overfishing and habitat fragmentation. Here, a basin-wide capture survey during 2017-2018 found 332 fish species, but did not find a single specimen of Chinese paddlefish. Furthermore, 140 historically reported fish species have not been found and most of them are considered highly endangered. Based on 210 sightings of Chinese paddlefish during the period 1981-2003, we estimated the timing of extinction to be by 2005, and no later than by 2010. In addition, the paddlefish probably became functionally extinct (i.e. it was unable to reproduce) by 1993, before it went extinct. It is likely that the lack of reproduction was among the major causes of extinction. As no individuals exist in captivity, and no living tissues are conserved for potential resurrection, the fish should be considered extinct according to the IUCN Red List criteria. The delayed extinction of Chinese paddlefish resulted from multiple threats, suggesting that optimizing conservation efforts on endangered Yangtze fauna is urgently needed.


Growing evidence suggests that anthropogenic litter, particularly plastic, represents a highly pervasive and persistent threat to global marine ecosystems. Multinational research is progressing to characterise its sources, distribution and abundance so that interventions aimed at reducing future inputs and clearing extant litter can be developed. Citizen science projects, whereby members of the public gather information, offer a low-cost method of collecting large volumes of data with considerable temporal and spatial coverage. Furthermore, such projects raise awareness of environmental issues and can lead to positive changes in behaviours and attitudes. We present data collected over a decade (2005-2014 inclusive) by Marine Conservation Society (MCS) volunteers during beach litter surveys carried along the British coastline, with the aim of increasing knowledge on the composition, spatial distribution and temporal trends of coastal debris. Unlike many citizen science projects, the MCS beach litter survey programme gathers information on the number of volunteers, duration of surveys and distances covered. This comprehensive information provides an opportunity to standardise data for variation in sampling effort among surveys, enhancing the value of outputs and robustness of findings. We found that plastic is the main constituent of anthropogenic litter on British beaches and the majority of traceable items originate from land-based sources, such as public littering. We identify the coast of the Western English Channel and Celtic Sea as experiencing the highest relative litter levels. Increasing trends over the 10-year time period were detected for a number of individual item categories, yet no statistically significant change in total (effort-corrected) litter was detected. We discuss the limitations of the dataset and make recommendations for future work. The study demonstrates the value of citizen science data in providing insights that would otherwise not be possible due to logistical and financial constraints of running government-funded sampling programmes on such large scales.

Concepts: Time, Statistics, Data, Coast, Beach, Waste, Output, English Channel


Raising public interest in and conservation activity for threatened species is critically important for successful biodiversity conservation. However, our understanding of what influences the public interest in threatened animals and how the interest induces conservation activities is quite limited. Here, we examined the role of zoos and a television program featuring animated animals in shaping public interest in and support for animals including threatened species from 2011 to 2018 in Japan. Public interest was measured by Internet search volumes and support by donation activity in zoos. Results showed that both zoos and the animated program made a significant contribution to increasing public interest in animals. The spatial distribution of the Google search volume for 92 animals was correlated with that of animals exhibited in zoos. In tandem with this, the broadcast of a Japanese animated TV program featuring animals (Kemono Friends) increased the Google search volume and Wikipedia pageviews for animal species featured in the program. The total increases of search volume and Wikipedia pageviews were estimated to be approximately 4.66 million for 37 species and 1.06 million for 63 species, respectively. Furthermore, after the original broadcasts of the program, we found that animals featured in the animated program had more financial supporters through donations than animals that were not featured. These results are striking because they indicate the increase in public interest led to actual conservation activity by citizens. Overall, our results demonstrate that both zoos and the animated TV program played important roles in promoting public interest in and support for threatened animals. Enhanced collaborations between people in the entertainment industry and conservation entities could contribute greatly to global biodiversity conservation.


Although microplastics are a recognised pollutant in marine environments, less attention has been directed towards freshwater ecosystems despite their greater proximity to possible plastic sources. Here, we quantify the presence of microplastic particles (MPs) in river organisms upstream and downstream of five UK Wastewater Treatment Works (WwTWs). MPs were identified in approximately 50% of macroinvertebrate samples collected (Baetidae, Heptageniidae and Hydropsychidae) at concentrations up to 0.14 MP mg tissue-1 and they occurred at all sites. MP abundance was associated with macroinvertebrate biomass and taxonomic family, but MPs occurred independently of feeding guild and biological traits such as habitat affinity and ecological niche. There was no increase in plastic ingestion downstream of WwTW discharges averaged across sites, but MP abundance in macroinvertebrates marginally increased where effluent discharges contributed more to total runoff and declined with increasing river discharge. The ubiquity of microplastics within macroinvertebrates in this case study reveals a potential risk from MPs entering riverine food webs through at least two pathways, involving detritivory and filter-feeding, and we recommend closer attention to freshwater ecosystems in future research.


Urban green space provides health benefits for city dwellers, and new evidence suggests that microorganisms associated with soil and vegetation could play a role. While airborne microorganisms are ubiquitous in urban areas, the influence of nearby vegetation on airborne microbial communities remains poorly understood. We examined airborne microbial communities in parks and parking lots in Eugene, Oregon, using high-throughput sequencing of the bacterial 16S rRNA gene on the Illumina MiSeq platform to identify bacterial taxa, and GIS to measure vegetation cover in buffer zones of different diameters. Our goal was to explore variation among highly vegetated (parks) versus non-vegetated (parking lots) urban environments. A secondary objective was to evaluate passive versus active collection methods for outdoor airborne microbial sampling. Airborne bacterial communities from five parks were different from those of five parking lots (p=0.023), although alpha diversity was similar. Direct gradient analysis showed that the proportion of vegetated area within a 50m radius of the sampling station explained 15% of the variation in bacterial community composition. A number of key taxa, including several Acidobacteriaceae were substantially more abundant in parks, while parking lots had higher relative abundance of Acetobacteraceae. Parks had greater beta diversity than parking lots, i.e. individual parks were characterized by unique bacterial signatures, whereas parking lot communities tended to be similar to each other. Although parks and parking lots were selected to form pairs of nearby sites, spatial proximity did not appear to affect compositional similarity. Our results also showed that passive and active collection methods gave comparable results, indicating the “settling dish” method is effective for outdoor airborne sampling. This work sets a foundation for understanding how urban vegetation may impact microbial communities, with potential implications for designing neighborhoods and open space systems that foster better human health.

Concepts: Archaea, Bacteria, Microbiology, Ribosomal RNA, Biotechnology, 16S ribosomal RNA


Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of 209 persistent and bio-accumulative toxic pollutants present as complex mixtures in human and animal tissues. Harbor porpoises accumulate some of the highest levels of PCBs because they are long-lived mammals that feed at a high trophic level. Studies typically use the sum of a suite of individual chlorobiphenyl congeners (CBs) to investigate PCBs in wildlife. However, toxic effects and thresholds of CB congeners differ, therefore population health risks of exposure may be under or over-estimated dependent on the congener profiles present. In this study, we found congener profiles varied with age, sex and location, particularly between adult females and juveniles. We found that adult females had the highest proportions of octa-chlorinated congeners whilst juveniles had the highest proportions of tri- and tetra-chlorinated congeners. This is likely to be a consequence of pollutant offloading between mothers and calves during lactation. Analysis of the individual congener toxicities found that juveniles were exposed to a more neurotoxic CB mixture at a time when they were most vulnerable to its effects. These findings are an important contribution towards our understanding of variation in congener profiles and the potential effects and threats of PCB exposure in cetaceans.


It was thought that the Southern Ocean was relatively free of microplastic contamination; however, recent studies and citizen science projects in the Southern Ocean have reported microplastics in deep-sea sediments and surface waters. Here we reviewed available information on microplastics (including macroplastics as a source of microplastics) in the Southern Ocean. We estimated primary microplastic concentrations from personal care products and laundry, and identified potential sources and routes of transmission into the region. Estimates showed the levels of microplastic pollution released into the region from ships and scientific research stations were likely to be negligible at the scale of the Southern Ocean, but may be significant on a local scale. This was demonstrated by the detection of the first microplastics in shallow benthic sediments close to a number of research stations on King George Island. Furthermore, our predictions of primary microplastic concentrations from local sources were five orders of magnitude lower than levels reported in published sampling surveys (assuming an even dispersal at the ocean surface). Sea surface transfer from lower latitudes may contribute, at an as yet unknown level, to Southern Ocean plastic concentrations. Acknowledging the lack of data describing microplastic origins, concentrations, distribution and impacts in the Southern Ocean, we highlight the urgent need for research, and call for routine, standardised monitoring in the Antarctic marine system.

Concepts: Scientific method, Atlantic Ocean, Science, Pacific Ocean, Ocean, Antarctica, Southern Ocean, Antarctic