Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

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


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


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


A large variety of micro-organic (MO) compounds is used in huge quantities for a range of purposes (e.g. manufacturing, food production, healthcare) and is now being frequently detected in the aquatic environment. Interest in the occurrence of MO contaminants in the terrestrial and aquatic environments continues to grow, as well as in their environmental fate and potential toxicity. However, the contamination of groundwater resources by MOs has a limited evidence base compared to other freshwater resources. Of particular concern are newly ‘emerging contaminants’ such as pharmaceuticals and lifestyle compounds, particularly those with potential endocrine disrupting properties. While groundwater often has a high degree of protection from pollution due to physical, chemical and biological attenuation processes in the subsurface compared to surface aquatic environments, trace concentrations of a large range of compounds are still detected in groundwater and in some cases may persist for decades due to the long residence times of groundwater systems. This study provides the first national-scale assessment of micro-organic compounds in groundwater in England and Wales. A large set of monitoring data was analysed to determine the relative occurrence and detected concentrations of different groups of compounds and to determine relationships with land-use, aquifer type and groundwater vulnerability. MOs detected including emerging compounds such as caffeine, DEET, bisphenol A, anti-microbial agents and pharmaceuticals as well as a range of legacy contaminants including chlorinated solvents and THMs, petroleum hydrocarbons, pesticides and other industrial compounds. There are clear differences in MOs between land-use types, particularly for urban-industrial and natural land-use. Temporal trends of MO occurrence are assessed but establishing long-term trends is not yet possible.

Concepts: Environment, Water, Petroleum, Chemistry, Water pollution, England, Endocrine disruptor, Soil contamination


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


This study identifies factors affecting the fate of buried objects in soil and develops a method for assessing where preservation of different materials and stratigraphic evidence is more or less likely in the landscape. The results inform the extent of the cultural service that soil supports by preserving artefacts from and information about past societies. They are also relevant to predicting the state of existing and planned buried infrastructure and the persistence of materials spread on land. Soils are variable and preserve different materials and stratigraphic evidence differently. This study identifies the material and soil properties that affect preservation and relates these to soil types; it assesses their preservation capacities for bones, teeth and shells, organic materials, metals (Au, Ag, Cu, Fe, Pb and bronze), ceramics, glass and stratigraphic evidence. Preservation of Au, Pb and ceramics, glass and phytoliths is good in most soils but degradation rates of other materials (e.g. Fe and organic materials) is strongly influenced by soil type. A method is proposed for using data on the distribution of soil types to map the variable preservation capacities of soil for different materials. This is applied at a continental scale across the EU for bones, teeth and shells, organic materials, metals (Cu, bronze and Fe) and stratigraphic evidence. The maps produced demonstrate how soil provides an extensive but variable preservation of buried objects.

Concepts: Soil, Zinc, Copper, Humus, Organic matter, Soil classification


Marine litter presents a global problem, with increasing quantities documented in recent decades. The distribution and abundance of marine litter on the seafloor off the United Kingdom’s (UK) coasts were quantified during 39 independent scientific surveys conducted between 1992 and 2017. Widespread distribution of litter items, especially plastics, were found on the seabed of the North Sea, English Channel, Celtic Sea and Irish Sea. High variation in abundance of litter items, ranging from 0 to 1835 pieces km-2of seafloor, was observed. Plastic tems such as bags, bottles and fishing related debris were commonly observed across all areas. Over the entire 25-year period (1992-2017), 63% of the 2461 trawls contained at least one plastic litter item. There was no significant temporal trend in the percentage of trawls containing any or total plastic litter items across the long-term datasets. Statistically significant trends, however, were observed in specific plastic litter categories only. These trends were all positive except for a negative trend in plastic bags in the Greater North Sea - suggesting that behavioural and legislative changes could reduce the problem of marine litter within decades.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, United Kingdom, Europe, England, Scotland, British Isles, North Sea, English Channel


Approval for glyphosate-based herbicides in the European Union (EU) is under intense debate due to concern about their effects on the environment and human health. The occurrence of glyphosate residues in European water bodies is rather well documented whereas only few, fragmented and outdated information is available for European soils. We provide the first large-scale assessment of distribution (occurrence and concentrations) of glyphosate and its main metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) in EU agricultural topsoils, and estimate their potential spreading by wind and water erosion. Glyphosate and/or AMPA were present in 45% of the topsoils collected, originating from eleven countries and six crop systems, with a maximum concentration of 2mgkg(-1). Several glyphosate and AMPA hotspots were identified across the EU. Soil loss rates (obtained from recently derived European maps) were used to estimate the potential export of glyphosate and AMPA by wind and water erosion. The estimated exports, result of a conceptually simple model, clearly indicate that particulate transport can contribute to human and environmental exposure to herbicide residues. Residue threshold values in soils are urgently needed to define potential risks for soil health and off site effects related to export by wind and water erosion.

Concepts: European Union, Sweden, Europe, Estonia, International trade, Surface runoff, European integration, Latvia


Potential for habitat restoration is increasingly used as an argument for reintroducing ecosystem engineers. Beaver have well known effects on hydromorphology through dam construction, but their scope to restore wetland biodiversity in areas degraded by agriculture is largely inferred. Our study presents the first formal monitoring of a planned beaver-assisted restoration, focussing on changes in vegetation over 12years within an agriculturally-degraded fen following beaver release, based on repeated sampling of fixed plots. Effects are compared to ungrazed exclosures which allowed the wider influence of waterlogging to be separated from disturbance through tree felling and herbivory. After 12years of beaver presence mean plant species richness had increased on average by 46% per plot, whilst the cumulative number of species recorded increased on average by 148%. Heterogeneity, measured by dissimilarity of plot composition, increased on average by 71%. Plants associated with high moisture and light conditions increased significantly in coverage, whereas species indicative of high nitrogen decreased. Areas exposed to both grazing and waterlogging generally showed the most pronounced change in composition, with effects of grazing seemingly additive, but secondary, to those of waterlogging. Our study illustrates that a well-known ecosystem engineer, the beaver, can with time transform agricultural land into a comparatively species-rich and heterogeneous wetland environment, thus meeting common restoration objectives. This offers a passive but innovative solution to the problems of wetland habitat loss that complements the value of beavers for water or sediment storage and flow attenuation. The role of larger herbivores has been significantly overlooked in our understanding of freshwater ecosystem function; the use of such species may yet emerge as the missing ingredient in successful restoration.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Plant, Wetland, Ecosystem, Beaver, Herbivore, Biome


Allergenic pollen is produced by the flowers of a number of trees, grasses and weeds found throughout the UK. Exposure to such pollen grains can exacerbate pollen-related asthma and allergenic conditions such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever). Maps showing the location of these allergenic taxa have many applications: they can be used to provide advice on risk assessments; combined with health data to inform research on health impacts such as respiratory hospital admissions; combined with weather data to improve pollen forecasting systems; or as inputs to pollen emission models. In this study we present 1km resolution maps of 12 taxa of trees, grass and weeds found in the UK. We have selected the main species recorded by the UK pollen network. The taxa mapped in this study were: Alnus (alder), Fraxinus (ash), Betula (birch), Corylus (hazel), Quercus (oak), Pinus (pine) and Salix (willow), Poaceae (grass), Artemisia (mugwort), Plantago (plantain), Rumex (dock, sorrels) and Urtica (nettle). We also focus on one high population centre and present maps showing local level detail around the city of London. Our results show the different geographical distributions of the 12 taxa of trees, weeds and grass, which can be used to study plants in the UK associated with allergy and allergic asthma. These maps have been produced in order to study environmental exposure and human health, although there are many possible applications. This novel method not only provides maps of many different plant types, but also at high resolution across regions of the UK, and we uniquely present 12 key plant taxa using a consistent methodology. To consider the impact on human health due to exposure of the pollen grains, it is important to consider the timing of pollen release, and its dispersal, as well as the effect on air quality, which is also discussed here.

Concepts: Immune system, Asthma, Plant, Allergy, Atopy, Birch, Pollen, Betulaceae