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Plague of Plastics

An uncommon scientist who steps out of the lab onto boats and in front of policy makers, LSA Professor Melissa Duhaime turns a skeptical side-eye to the presence of plastics in our lakes and oceans. She wants to use science to keep our water healthy.
by Elizabeth Wason

This is an article from the fall 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

Plastic can be unexpectedly easy to find in the oceans, and easy for birds and other animals to mistake as food. When human trash misses the landfill, it can flow through rivers and lakes to the oceans, cracking and crumbling along the way into tiny pieces called microplastics. Those microplastics then accumulate into giant “garbage patches” in the ocean, merged and concentrated by the currents to create a peppery soup consisting of pieces of garbage no bigger than popcorn kernels.

Plastics haven’t always been a problem; they once were seen as a solution — a means of preserving the environment. Until the invention of celluloid to create billiard balls, demand for balls carved from ivory wiped out herds of elephants. Plastic eyeglass frames made it possible to produce tortoiseshell glasses without harvesting shells from hawksbill sea turtles. And furniture designers thoughtfully made products from plastic to spare forests from the ax.

But plastic has turned into a danger that the world did not anticipate, and some people are working hard to address the problem. Melissa Duhaime, a professor in LSA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, shares scientific research on the hazards of microplastics publicly and often, including at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., last year. The office of Michigan Senator Gary Peters invited her by email on a Thursday, asking her to prep and appear in the Senate on the following Tuesday — a tough, quick turnaround, which Duhaime figured was worth the extra effort.

At the hearing, Duhaime reported on what’s known about the issue, particularly in light of what she and her lab have studied in the oceans and on the Great Lakes. Her lab conducted the largest-ever survey of Great Lakes plastic pollution, finding plastic in every trawl they dragged through the water, at some of the highest concentrations ever recorded in the world. 

“In the water, these plastics serve as sponges of persistent organic pollutants,” she says. Those pollutants include antibiotics, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, all of which have been found on microplastics in Lake Erie. 

And because plastics make their way onto our plates via fish, into our water glasses, and even into our pints of beer, Duhaime says, “It’s certain that humans are consuming plastic.”

Today, Duhaime’s research focuses on how to keep water cleaner, and that means addressing the problem of plastics. She’s doing this work on land and on the water, aiming at an action plan with sustainable solutions.

Getting on Board

Duhaime’s path to science and microplastics began with microbes and a dead whale.

She switched out of studying political science as an undergrad as soon as she took an evolution course for non-majors. “By the end of the semester, I knew I needed to change my major,” she says. For an extra writing credit, she wrote a proposal centered on deep sea hydrothermal vents and their microbes. The work scored her an internship at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The work she did during her internship involved hanging out on board a ship that was tethered to a deep-sea vehicle that dove almost two miles underwater to explore a whale fall — the carcass of a whale at the bottom of the ocean. The team ended up discovering two new species of worm feeding on the dead whale bones. They named the species after the Latin term Osedax, meaning “bone devourer.”

The experience had Duhaime hooked. She hopped on a handful of research vessels after that during graduate school and beyond, pursuing research as far as Antarctica.

“I was driven to solving problems in water use and sustainability combined with other research on microbes,” she says. “That was why I tracked down my first plastic pieces from the North Pacific, to see the microbial community on one piece versus another. If that can help inform something about the impact of plastic in these ecosystems, then all the better.

“Our current work is focused on the microscopic life-forms that live on plastic debris,” Duhaime says. "Understanding how microbial communities organize themselves on individual pieces of plastic, knowing who can persist and why, can offer clues as to the fate of the plastic." Her lab also studies how microbes might feed on and help decompose the plastics they colonize, non-native microbes and contaminants hitching rides on microplastics, and even the viruses that attack microbes in the water.

"These are the elements of basic research that can help inform something about the impact of the plastic in these ecosystems, and even inform possible solutions," she says.

Duhaime and her lab often go out in boats, which serve as “floating field stations.” For their earlier survey of Great Lakes plastic pollution, members of Duhaime’s lab boarded the Nancy K, a classic gillnetter fishing boat retrofitted for science research by David Brooks, someone whom Duhaime describes as “an uber–citizen scientist and wonderful human.”

A retired engineer from Chelsea, Michigan, Brooks has an outsized interest in scientific surveys. He built a side winch on the boat so the science crew could tow their plastic trawl, along with bunks for overnight expeditions. “He donated all of his time and fuel,” Duhaime says. “His enthusiasm and interest in environmental monitoring and protection was the only reason we got our dataset. I don’t know what we would’ve done without him.”

Duhaime embarked on the Nancy K with Rachel Cable (M.S. ’12) — a longtime research technician who leads many of their plastic sampling trips and develops methods for analyzing the samples they bring back to the lab — along with the remaining crew of students. On a typical trip, Duhaime, Cable, and the crew — which has included many undergraduate students and, once, a barista from a coffee shop near campus — might send a manta trawl net out onto the water’s surface for 20 minutes at a time, coordinate to pull it in, and then dump everything from the net into bottles, picking out plastics to preserve for microbe sampling later. On other trips, bongo nets can collect plastics from lower layers in the water. On yet other trips, such as with the eXXpedition and its all-female crews, Duhaime and others trawl for plastics with the aim of raising the profile of women scientists while raising awareness about plastic pollution.






















Drying Up and Raining Down and Flowing All Over

Duhaime especially has loved going out with students on the Inland Seas, a tall-masted schooner on the Great Lakes crewed by the Inland Seas Education Association, as part of her new “Microbes in the Wild” class, which receives support through U-M’s Third Century Initiative. 

The class merges education, research, and public interaction with formal coursework. For two weeks in the summer, the students live and work at LSA’s Biological Station, cruising overnight on the Inland Seas to collect data for the research projects they'll complete during the fall semester at U-M’s Central Campus. Students learn how to ask and answer science questions while considering sustainability and the lakes that surround them here in Michigan.

For Duhaime and the students she collaborates with, understanding and advocating for clean water through scientific work is a specific and personal story — especially here in Michigan.

“We pull in nets that are just full of plastic — chunks and chunks of plastic,” Cable says about some of their fieldwork. “It’s good for the students to have the experience, because they bring the plastic back to the lab to sort, and they wouldn’t otherwise know that these plastics came from the beautiful lakes they visit.”

“I grew up in Tecumseh, Michigan. I grew up with HOMES,” says Alexi Schnur (B.S. 2018), referring to the well-known mnemonic for the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Schnur worked in Duhaime’s lab from her very first week as an undergraduate and took the “Microbes in the Wild” course during her senior year. “We don’t think about water, because we have it. We have so much freshwater here that’s usable and healthy. As a Michigander, it’s been there my whole life, and I want to keep it that way.”

Still, the plague of plastics translates as a global problem. Because water flows everywhere on Earth, connecting to itself across the globe, drying up and raining down in a completely different place, Duhaime says, “All the people on Earth, no matter where they live, share all the water all the time.” Which gets Duhaime thinking that one of her most important jobs is to help keep water clean.

Duhaime helps through her research and when she speaks to senators at the capitol. She’s been working with federal programs to develop an action plan for the Great Lakes. She has designed a class that encourages students to think in terms of water sustainability. And she’s intentional about modeling conscientious work in science for her three daughters.

And while most senators and scientists, including Duhaime, would say that we still don’t know enough about microplastics to call for immediate legislation, she does see a clear, immediate need to follow up with research about plastics and their colonizing microbes. It’s one of the reasons she gets so excited about doing science.

“I think about how my actions, my investments in my work, and my time might impact the planet or the other people living on it with us,” Duhaime says. “I’ve had to really hone how I spend my time and thinking about whether it it reflects my values. I find that personally very satisfying as a human.”























Release Date: 10/23/2019
Category: Faculty; Alumni; Research; Students
Tags: LSA; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Natural Sciences; LSA Magazine; Elizabeth Wason