written by Clea Harrelson ’20
Jaime Ross never expected to study microplastics. But when the opportunity presented itself to investigate the potential impacts of microplastics on the body, she felt like the timing was right to try something new.
“Researchers have been looking more at the impact of microplastics on marine life and oceans but not the impact on human consumption and disease. We are interested in microplastics because it seemed like a black box in discussions about human health,” explains Ross, a University of Rhode Island (URI) assistant professor with joint appointments in the Department of Biomedical andPharmaceutical Sciences and the George and Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.
Ross’s research seeks to rectify this gap in knowledge and answer foundational questions about the life cycle of microplastics in the body and whether chronic exposure to microplastics affects brain health.
Her work could be an important pathway to simultaneously advance research on human health and microplastics and leverage the collaborative power of URI’s Plastics: Land to Sea COLAB (co-laboratories) initiative. Launched in spring of 2021, URI’s Plastics COLAB brings together researchers and resources across URI departments and disciplines to understand and address plastics pollution.
Ross’s research focuses on the role of genetics, mitochondrial dysfunction, and inflammation in understanding age-related diseases, particularly those that impact the brain such as Alzheimer’s.
However, Ross, alongside Research Assistant Professor Giuseppe Coppotelli, biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences, and Ph.D. candidate Lauren Gaspar, decided to investigate potential impacts of microplastics exposure after considering questions about environmental influences on brain health from colleagues in her field.
Through a $25,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, awarded March 2021, Ross and her team completed a series of small pilot studies to assess patterns of behavior in mice after acute microplastics exposure and to understand how microplastics show up at the cellular level.
“In just three weeks we found very striking changes in behavior in the animals – such as how much they moved, how anxious they were, and how they responded to stimuli like light. That’s scary,” Ross says. “Then we started to look at the tissues of the mice and found that microplastics had infiltrated every tissue we looked at, including the brain, and were congregated around the nucleus of cells.”
She also submitted a proposal to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) in March 2022 which would allow Ross’s team to build off this initial work and answer deeper questions about how microplastics interact with the body and cells.
She explains, “That’s the next step. Where do microplastics go when they enter the body?”
Because this research would be breaking new ground, Ross emphasizes that answering basic questions first is critical to building up to the more complicated biological dynamics she hopes her team will explore if awarded funding.
“What happens if you suddenly stop being exposed? Is our body able to expel microplastics or defend against exposure?”
– Jaime Ross
“What we ultimately want to understand is how the environment interacts with genetic background and how that can affect our aging process and potentially make us more susceptible to disease,” Ross says.
The project would allow Ross and her team to carry out a series of important phases in research, beginning with what happens to healthy individuals who are chronically exposed to microplastics. This would be followed by assessing the effects of chronic microplastic exposure in individuals with a predisposition to diseases and potential impacts from microplastics on early developmental life stages.
Ross highlights the importance of exploring what happens after exposure and whether there are potentially biological defense mechanisms, asking the questions: “What happens if you suddenly stop being exposed? Is our body able to expel microplastics or defend against exposure?”
“The body of expertise here is broad and really supportive, and I never would have embarked on this type of research project if I had not been here at URI, with the support of my colleagues affiliated with the COLAB.”
– Jaime Ross
Implementation of this project would rely on a range of URI partners such as Assistant Professor Coleen Suckling, fisheries, animal, and veterinary science, and Visiting Associate Professor Andrew Davies, biological sciences, both contributors to URI’s Plastics COLAB.
In addition, Ross says her team would likely work with faculty from institutions such as Harvard University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden to receive key test tissues and analyze results of experiments. If she receives funding, Ross also plans to hire a postdoctoral researcher to support this work and ensure that students are included throughout the process.
Ross describes the support she has from URI faculty and staff leading up to this submission as exceptional.
“The body of expertise here is broad and really supportive, and I never would have embarked on this type of research project if I had not been here at URI, with the support of my colleagues affiliated with the COLAB,” Ross says.