Something Fishy?

(August 23rd, 2016) It was one of those headline-grabbing news revelations - A recent study showed fish like to eat plastic microbeads. Now, an investigation at Uppsala University examines whether the study's data may be compromised.

Typically no bigger than 1 mm, small plastic balls known as microbeads are found in virtually every personal hygiene and cosmetic product, from toothpaste to lipstick. We've been using them for years in blissful ignorance of their detrimental effects to the environment. It's becoming increasingly clear, however, how these tiny particles can be very dangerous for aquatic species, as they manage to escape the filters in water treatment plants and reach oceans and seas in large numbers. Worryingly, some evidence seems to suggest fish find these small balls very appetising and like to eat them. Think of it like sea life’s version of "junk food".

So, it didn't come as much of a surprise when two Swedish researchers showed how fish prefer to eat polystyrene balls instead of their natural plankton. As a result, the paper published in Science found smaller and slower young perch becoming easy prey for predators.

At the time, these results received lots of media attention as a way to highlight how pollution caused by humans can be very harmful for the environment. Only a few weeks later, however, authors Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv are fighting accusations of misconduct, including missing data, poor statistical design and wrong methodology. Following an in-depth analysis of the paper, a group of European researchers, led by Norwegian biologist Frederik Jutfelt, submitted a formal letter to Uppsala University, listing their concerns about this work.

For these researchers, there are several problems but the most worrying point is the mismatch between how the experiments were described in the paper and how they believe they were actually performed. "We have evidence including witness reports, photos of the experimental setup, and email correspondences that the experiments reported in the paper were not performed as described by the authors," they write in their letter.

Uppsala University has confirmed it will be conducting an inquiry soon; however, the case is not being treated as misconduct yet. In fact, the purpose of this initial inquiry is only to determine whether further investigations are needed. "Uppsala University has received allegations of misconduct in research from a research group regarding the study Lönnstedt OM and Eklöv P (2016) Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology. In accordance with our routines, the University has assembled a group of external researchers to review the allegations," says Anneli Waara, Senior Press Officer. "The investigation has not yet started due to summer vacations."

For now, these are nothing more than a few allegations but if this turns out to be a case of misconduct, it's another blow to the public's trust in science. When published, this paper was considered an important step to understand the impact of pollution on marine life. Intuitively, it may seem obvious that eating plastic is detrimental for aquatic life but this has been very difficult to prove, so far. Many European countries are currently developing legislation to ban the use of microbeads but these efforts could be hampered, if not backed up by reliable scientific evidence.

Alex Reis

Photo: Waumsley

Last Changes: 09.16.2016