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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Prepackaged leafy green vegetables represent one of the fastest growing segments of the fresh-produce industry in the United States. Several steps in the production process have been mechanized to meet the downstream demand for prebagged lettuces. The growth in this market, however, has come with drawbacks, and chief among them are consumers finding wild animals in prepackaged crops. These incidents may signal an overburdened produce supply chain, but we currently lack the information needed to determine if this is a food-safety problem or food-quality concern. Here, we address this gap by reviewing online media coverage of wild vertebrates found in prepackaged produce items by customers in the United States. We discovered 40 independent incidents since 2003 with 95% having occurred during 2008-2018, suggesting that the frequency of incidents may have increased during the last decade. The minority of incidents included wild animals found in organic produce (27.5%), whereas the majority involved conventionally grown crops (72.5%). Most incidents involved amphibians (52.5%) and reptiles (22.5%), while fewer contained mammals (17.5%) and birds (7.5%). Frogs and toads made up all of the amphibian-related incidents, with more than 60% comprising small-bodied treefrogs found in various types of fresh leafy greens. At least seven incidents involved Pacific Treefrogs (Hyliola regilla) and three comprised Green Anoles (Anolis carolinensis). One lizard and nine frogs were found alive, and at least two frogs were released into non-native areas. This is the first review quantifying incidents of vertebrates found by customers in prepackaged produce, yet it remains unclear whether these occurrences indicate a food-safety crisis or a complaint against food quality. Nevertheless, wild animals can spread diseases to humans via contaminated produce, therefore we contend that industry professionals can reduce the potential health risk to their consumers and negative economic consequences to themselves through increased attention to this matter.