Polyester-derived microfibre impacts on the soil-dwelling earthworm Lumbricus terrestris

Miranda T. Prendergast-Miller*, Andreas Katsiamides, Mustafa Abbass, Stephen R. Sturzenbaum, Karen L. Thorpe, Mark E. Hodson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

128 Citations (Scopus)


Microplastic (MP) pollution is everywhere. In terrestrial environments, microfibres (MFs) generated from textile laundering are believed to form a significant component of MPs entering soils, mainly through sewage sludge and compost applications. The aim of this study was to assess the effect of MFs on a keystone soil organism. We exposed the earthworm Lumbricus terrestris to soil with polyester MFs incorporated at rates of 0, 0.1 and 1.0 %w/w MF for a period of 35 days (in the dark at 15 °C; n = 4 for each treatment). Dried plant litter was applied at the soil surface as a food source for the earthworms. We assessed earthworm vitality through mortality, weight change, depurate production and MF avoidance testing. In addition, we measured stress biomarker responses via the expression of metallothionein-2 (mt-2), heat shock protein (hsp70) and superoxide dismutase (sod-1). Our results showed that exposure and ingestion of MFs (as evidenced by subsequent retrieval of MFs within earthworm depurates) were not lethal to earthworms, nor did earthworms actively avoid MFs. However, earthworms in the MF1.0% treatment showed a 1.5-fold lower cast production, a 24.3-fold increase in expression of mt-2 (p < 0.001) and a 9.9-fold decline in hsp70 expression (p < 0.001). Further analysis of soil and MF samples indicated that metal content was not a contributor to the biomarker results. Given that burrowing and feeding behaviour, as well as molecular genetic biomarkers, were modulated in earthworms exposed to MFs, our study highlights potential implications for soil ecosystem processes due to MF contamination. Microfibre contamination has potential implications for soil ecosystems as exposure of Lumbricus terrestris to soil-microfibre mixtures reduced burrowing and altered physiology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)453-459
Number of pages7
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Early online date9 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes


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