Microplastics can spread via flying insects, research shows

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 Fluorescent microplastics (bright green) are visible inside an adult mosquito. The particles can then spread to animals that eat the insects. Photograph: Al-Jaibachi et al/Biology Letters

Fluorescent microplastics (bright green) are visible inside an adult mosquito. The particles can then spread to animals that eat the insects. Photograph: Al-Jaibachi et al/Biology Letters

Microplastic can escape from polluted waters via flying insects, new research has revealed, contaminating new environments and threatening birds and other creatures that eat the insects.

Scientists fed microplastics to mosquito larvae, which live in water, but found that the particles remained inside the animals as they transformed into flying adults. Other recent research found that half of the mayfly and caddisfly larvae in rivers in Wales contained microplastics.

Concern over microplastic pollution is rising rapidly as it is discovered in ever more places, and very little research has been done on how it may harm wildlife or humans. The particles can harbour bacteria or leach toxic chemicals. Microplastics have been found in tapwater around the world, in vast numbers in the oceans and sea creatures and even in remote Swiss mountains.

“It is a shocking reality that plastic is contaminating almost every corner of the environment and its ecosystems,” said Prof Amanda Callaghan, at the University of Reading, UK, who led the new research on mosquitoes. “Much recent attention has been given to the plastics polluting our oceans, but this research reveals it is also in our skies.”

The new study, published in the journal Biology Letters, used Culex pipiens mosquitoes, as they are found across the world in many habitats. The researchers found the larvae readily consumed fluorescent microplastic particles that were 0.0002cm in size.

“Larvae are filter feeders that waft little combs towards their mouths, so they can’t actually distinguish between a bit of plastic and a bit of food,” Callaghan said. “They eat algae, which are more or less the same size as these microplastics.”

The larvae matured into a non-feeding pupa stage and then emerged as adult mosquitoes, which still had significant microplastic within them. The researchers are now studying if this damages the mosquitoes.

Callaghan said it is “highly likely” that other flying insects that begin as water larvae will also eat and retain microplastics. Birds, bats and spiders are among the species that eat large numbers of insects, suggesting these are also consuming microplastics. “You can get swarms of insects,” she said. “You could have a lot of plastic going up. It’s totally depressing. These plastics are going to be around forever.”

Plastics have been found inside many seabirds, but this is the first research suggesting terrestrial birds that eat insects are at risk. “This is a new pathway to get plastics up in the air and expose animals that are not normally exposed,” said Callaghan. “We don’t know what the impact will be.”

Matt Shardlow, chief executive of the conservation charity Buglife, said: “Aquatic insects are in the microplastic front line. We emit billions of plastic fibres every year, many of which go straight into rivers, so there is an urgent need for more research into the role microplastics may be playing in observed declines in aquatic life.”

Many microplastics are fibres shed by synthetic clothing during washing – a single wash can release 700,000 fibres. “While research proceeds, we can all think carefully about our clothing choices,” said Shardlow. Other microplastics are formed by the abrasion of larger pieces of plastic in rivers and oceans.

Large pieces of plastic are easily seen and clearly harm animals, from turtles to albatrosses. But research has also found microplastics, defined as smaller than 5mm, in many marine creatures, from worms to plankton and up the food chain to fish. Where investigated, they have been shown to damage the health of the animals.

Like the oceans, freshwater rivers and lakes are also heavily contaminated – a river near Manchester, UK, has the worst microplastic pollution yet recorded – but the impact on wildlife in these habitats has been much less studied.

The research in the Welsh rivers found microplastics in larvae both upstream and downstream from wastewater treatment plants, indicating that plastic pollution enters rivers directly, not just via sewage.

The researchers, led by Prof Steve Ormerod at Cardiff University, said the overall dearth of data on the effect of microplastics on freshwater creatures means that the understanding of the risk to the ecosystem remains “seriously limited”.

It is widely accepted that humans are also consuming microplastics. “We all eat them, there’s no doubt about it,” said Callaghan. Eating seafood such as mussels or cod is one route, while beersugar and sea salt have all been found to contain microplastics. Exposure is likely to rise, as plastic production is expected to climb by 40% in the next decade, prompting scientists to call for urgent research on the effects of microplastics on people.

The secret life of fungi: Ten fascinating facts

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By Helen Briggs

 ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS, KEW

ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS, KEW

They're all around us, in the soil, our bodies and the air, but are often too small to be seen with the naked eye.

They provide medicines and food but also wreak havoc by causing plant and animal diseases.

According to the first big assessment of the state of the world's fungi, the fungal kingdom is vital to life on Earth.

Yet, more than 90% of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world are currently unknown to science.

"It's such an interesting set of organisms and we really know so little about them," says Prof Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which led the report.

"They're really weird organisms with the most bizarre life cycle. And yet when you understand their role in the Earth's ecosystem, you realise that they underpin life on Earth."

Many people are familiar with edible mushrooms or the mould behind penicillin. But fungi have a range of vital roles, from helping plants draw water and nutrients from the soil to medicines that can lower blood cholesterol or enable organ transplants.

Fungi also hold promise for breaking down plastics and generating new types of biofuels. But they have a darker side: devastating trees, crops and other plants across the world, and wiping out animals such as amphibians.

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Jekyll and Hyde

Dr Ester Gaya, who leads a research project at Kew exploring the diversity and evolution of the world's fungi, says fungi are a bit like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

"They can be good and also bad at the same time," she says. "The same fungus, it can be seen as a detrimental thing - it can be bad - but also can have a lot of potential and have a lot of solutions."

The report sheds light on a number of gaps in our knowledge of a group of organisms that may hold the answers to food security. The fungal kingdom contains some of the most damaging crop pathogens. But fungi also recycle nutrients and play a role in the regulation of carbon dioxide levels.

"We ignore fungi at our peril," says Prof Willis. "This is a kingdom we have to start to take seriously, especially with climate change and all the other challenges that we're being faced with."

Fascinating facts about fungi

  1. Fungi are in a kingdom of their own but are closer to animals than plants

  2. They have chemicals in their cell walls shared with lobsters and crabs

  3. A fungus has been discovered capable of breaking down plastics in weeks rather than years

  4. There is evidence to suggest that yeasts - a type of fungus - were being used to produce the alcoholic drink mead as long ago as 9,000 years ago

  5. At least 350 species are consumed as foods including truffles, which can sell for thousands of dollars apiece, quorn, and those in marmite and cheese

  6. Plastic car parts, synthetic rubber and lego are made using itaconic acid derived from a fungus

  7. 216 species of fungi are thought to be hallucinogenic

  8. Fungi are being used to turn crop waste into bioethanol

  9. Products made from fungi can be used as replacements for polystyrene foam, leather and building materials

  10. DNA studies show that there are thousands of different fungi in a single sample of soil, many of which are unknown and hidden - so-called "dark taxa"

The report, State of the World's Fungi, involved over 100 scientists from 18 countries. It found:

  • More than 2,000 new fungi are discovered each year, from a variety of sources, including a human fingernail

  • Hundreds of species are collected and eaten as food, with the global market for edible mushrooms worth £32.5bn a year

  • Only 56 types of fungi have been evaluated for the IUCN Red List, compared with more than 25,000 plants and 68,000 animals

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At the last count, there were at least 15,000 types of fungi in the UK, some of which could be on the edge of extinction.

Citizen scientists are helping to identify fungi across the country, adding to a database of more than 1,000 new records.

Dr Brian Douglas of The Lost and Found Fungi Project says fungi are as beautiful as orchids and just as important to protect. "I think we need to teach people, invite people in to admiring fungi."

Colleague Dr Oliver Ellingham adds. "Fungi is a whole another kingdom equal if not greater than in diversity than both the plants and animals."

UN treaty would protect high seas from over exploitation

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By Matt McGrath

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The first significant steps towards legally protecting the high seas are to take place at the UN in New York.

These waters, defined as the open ocean far from coastlines, are threatened by deep-sea mining, over-fishing and the patenting of marine genetic resources.

Over the next two years, government representatives aim to hammer out a binding agreement to protect them against over-exploitation.

But several nations, including the US, are lukewarm towards the proposals.

Experts believe that the oceans of the world are vital for a number of reasons. Scientists say they capture around 90% of the extra heat and about 26% of the excess carbon dioxide created by humans through the burning of fossil fuels and other activities.

"The half of our planet which is high seas is protecting terrestrial life from the worst impacts of climate change," said Prof Alex Rogers from Oxford University, UK, who has provided evidence to inform the UN treaty process getting under way on Tuesday.

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"Yet we do too little to safeguard that or to protect the life within the ocean which is intrinsic to our collective survival. Protecting the biodiversity of the high seas by bringing good governance and law to the whole ocean is the single most important thing we can do to turn the tide for the blue heart of our planet."

So what exactly does 'high seas' mean?

The high seas are defined as the oceans that lie beyond exclusive economic zones. These zones are usually within 370km (200 nautical miles) of a country's coastline. These waters cover one and a half times the total land area of the planet and are home to some of the rarest and most charismatic species - but all countries have the right to navigate, fly over, carry our scientific research and fish on the high seas without restriction.

Aren't these water already protected?

In 1982, the UN adopted the Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which, when it became active in 1994, regulated sea-bed mining and cable-laying to some extent. There are also a host of other international groups, including the International Whaling Commission that look after aspects of the seas, but there is no overarching treaty that would protect biodiversity or limit exploitation.

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What are the big threats to the high seas?

Researchers believe the high seas may be a major source of mineral resources in years to come. Just last year, a team of British scientists exploring an underwater mountain in the Atlantic Ocean discovered high concentrations of a rare and valuable substance used to build solar panels.

They're not the only ones - companies are also targeting deep-sea hydrothermal vents, home to a range of extremely rare and often exotic species.

The undersea world far from shore is also of growing interest because the strange and wonderful creatures that live there may lead to new pharmaceuticals - certainly a select group of research bodies believe this to be the case with 84% of patents related to marine species filed by just 30 institutions over the past 30 years.

It's the same story when it comes to fishing. Ships from 10 rich countries - among them Japan, Korea and Spain - take around 70% of the catch. Several studies using satellite data have shown the scale of fishing taking place away from national waters, including the practice of unloading catches on to other ships in international waters, something that allows boats to evade monitoring and enforcement.

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How would a new treaty work?

There would be three likely elements to any new treaty. Firstly, it would allow the setting up of Marine Protected Areas in international waters - something many countries have already done in their own jurisdictions. A new pact would also allow the carrying out of environmental impact assessments to guard against potential harm from activities on the high seas. In addition, a new, legally binding deal would allow poorer countries to benefit from any discoveries developed from marine genetic resources.

"A strong global ocean treaty would allow us to create a network of ocean sanctuaries to protect wildlife, ensure food security for billions of people and help us to tackle climate change," Sandra Schoettner, a marine biologist with Greenpeace, told news agencies.

Why are some governments reluctant to support the treaty?

The US rejected the UNCLOS treaty back in 1994 and is reticent about these new proposals. Some whale-hunting countries, such as Japan, Iceland and Norway, are said to be cautious about the idea because they fear it will restrict their fishing operations. Russia is also said to be dragging its feet.

Campaigners, though, are optimistic that eventually a deal will be reached.

"The current high seas governance system is weak, fragmented and unfit to address the threats we now face in the 21st Century from climate change, illegal and over-fishing, plastics pollution and habitat loss," said Peggy Kalas, from the High Seas Alliance,

"This is a historic opportunity to protect the biodiversity and functions of the high seas through legally binding commitments."

Electric cars exceed 1m in Europe as sales soar by more than 40%

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By Adam Vaughan

 Between January and June around 195,000 plug-in cars were sold across the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Photograph: Miles Willis/Getty Images for Go Ultra Low

Between January and June around 195,000 plug-in cars were sold across the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Photograph: Miles Willis/Getty Images for Go Ultra Low

There are now more than a million electric cars in Europe after sales soared by more than 40% in the first half of the year, new figures reveal.

Europe hit the milestone nearly a year after China, which has a much larger car market, but ahead of the US, which is expected to reach the landmark later this year driven by the appetite for Tesla’s latest model.

Between January and June around 195,000 plug-in cars were sold across the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, a 42% increase on the same period a year before.

With growth speeding up, the cumulative total is expected to hit 1.35m by the end of the year, according to industry analysts EV-Volumes.

Viktor Irle, a market analyst at the group, said: “A stock of one million electric vehicles is an important milestone on the road to electrification and meeting emission targets but it is of course not enough.”

The figures include fully electric cars and vans, plus plug-in hybrid ones, which can travel a short distance off a battery before switching to a conventional engine.

While plug-in sales are growing, they still account for only 2% of all new car and van registrations across Europe in the first half of the year. By the year’s end, the share is forecast to hit 2.35%.

Norway continued to lead the pack, with 36,500 sales and a share of 37% of new registrations. The country has long been ahead on battery-powered vehicles, thanks in large part to generous government incentives.

However, rapid growth in Germany means Europe’s biggest car market is set to overtake Norway by the end of the year for total sales.

The Netherlands and Denmark also posted good growth but the UK had only moderate growth because of what EV-Volumes called a lack of compelling models from domestic manufacturers Ford and Vauxhall.

The UK sold 30,040 plug-in cars and vans in the first half of the year. Sales of fully electric cars dipped by 6% but plug-in hybrids surged by 50%.

Pivot Power, a firm which hopes to build a UK-wide network of rapid electric car chargers, said the UK was well-positioned to catch up with its Nordic peers.

“The one millionth sale this year is a clear signal of consumer intent. Access to low-cost, well-located charging from abundant power sources is crucial for capturing this momentum,” Matt Allen, the firm’s CEO, said.

First mapping of global marine wilderness shows just how little remains

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Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on July 26 have completed the first systematic analysis of marine wilderness around the world. And what they found is not encouraging; only a small fraction -- about 13 percent -- of the world's ocean can still be classified as wilderness.

The remaining marine wilderness is unequally distributed and found primarily in the Arctic, in the Antarctic, or around remote Pacific Island nations. In coastal regions, there is almost no marine wilderness left at all.

"We were astonished by just how little marine wilderness remains," says Kendall Jones of the University of Queensland, Australia, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. "The ocean is immense, covering over 70 percent of our planet, but we've managed to significantly impact almost all of this vast ecosystem."

On land, rapid declines in wilderness have been well documented. But much less was known about the status of marine wilderness. Wilderness areas are crucial for marine biodiversity.

"Pristine wilderness areas hold massive levels of biodiversity and endemic species and are some of the last places of Earth where big populations of apex predators are still found," Jones says.

In the new study, Jones and his colleagues used the most comprehensive global data available for 19 human stressors, including commercial shipping, fertilizer and sediment runoff, and several types of fishing in the ocean and their cumulative impact. They systematically mapped marine wilderness globally by identifying areas with very little impact (lowest 10% percent) from 15 anthropogenic stressors and also a very low combined cumulative impact from these stressors.

In order to capture differences in human influence by ocean regions, the researchers repeated their analysis within each of 16 ocean realms. They found wide variation in the degree of human impacts. For instance, more than 16 million square kilometers of wilderness remains in the Warm Indo-Pacific, accounting for 8.6 percent of the ocean. But it's even worse in Temperate Southern Africa, where less than 2,000 square kilometers of marine wilderness remains -- less than 1 percent of the ocean.

The study also shows that less than 5 percent of global marine wilderness is currently protected. Most of this is in offshore ecosystems, with very little protected wilderness found in high-biodiversity areas such as coral reefs.

"This means the vast majority of marine wilderness could be lost at any time, as improvements in technology allow us to fish deeper and ship farther than ever before," Jones says. "Thanks to a warming climate, even some places that were once safe due to year-round ice cover can now be fished."

The findings highlight an urgent need for action to protect what remains of marine wilderness, the researchers say. Such an effort requires international environmental agreements to recognize the unique value of marine wilderness and sets targets for its retention.