Combined effects of nanoplastics and copper on the freshwater alga Raphidocelis subcapitata

Bellingeri, A.; Bergami, E.; Grassi, G.; Faleri, C.; Redondo Hasselerharm, P.E.; Koelmans, A.A.; Corsi, I.


Nanoplastics are recognized as able to interact with other pollutants including heavy metals, and with natural organic matter, with implications for the potential risks to biota. We investigated the interaction of carboxylated polystyrene nanoparticles (PS–COOH NPs) with copper (Cu) and algal exudates (EPS) and how such interaction could affect Cu toxicity towards the freshwater microalga Raphidocelis subcapitata. PS–COOH NPs behavior in the presence of Cu and EPS was determined by dynamic light scattering (DLS), while PS–COOH NPs surface interaction with Cu ions and EPS was investigated by fluorimetric analysis. ICP-MS was used to test Cu ion adsorption to PS–COOH NPs in the presence and absence of algae. The interaction between PS–COOH NPs and the algal cell wall was assessed by fluorescence microscopy. Short- and long-term toxicity tests were carried out in parallel to assess the impact of PS–COOH NPs on algal growth. Results showed altered nanoparticle surface charge and hydrodynamic diameter following algal EPS exposure, supporting the hypothesis of a protein corona formation. In contrast, no absorption of Cu ions was observed on PS–COOH NPs, either in the presence or absence of algae. No differences on algal growth inhibition were observed between exposure to Cu only, and to Cu in combination with PS–COOH NPs, in short-term as well as long-term tests. However, after 72 h of exposure, the adsorption of PS-COOH NPs to algal cell walls appeared to correspond to morphological alterations, revealing potential disturbances in the mitotic cycle. Our findings confirm the ability of PS–COOH NPs to interact with EPS as shown for other nanomaterials. Environmentally realistic exposure scenarios are thus needed for evaluating nanoplastic toxicity, as nanoparticles will not maintain their pristine nature once released into natural media. Prolonged exposure and use of different end-points such as cell morphological changes and EPS production seem more reliable for the investigation of nanoplastic/algal cell interactions which can drive food chain transfer of nanoplastics and ultimately toxicity.