Microplastics could be responsible for the decline in oyster population, according to a new study from the University of Exeter. Ingesting plastic wastes may damage the bivalve's reproductive cycle that could lead to unhealthy offspring.

Microplastics are classified as pieces of the polymers smaller than 0.20 inch in length. These are often used in the manufacture of cosmetics and clothing, and commonly a byproduct of industrial processes. Fragments of plastic this size can also be from larger debris, falling apart in the marine environment.

In 2010 alone, between 4 and 12 million tons of plastics found their way into the ocean. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the total weight of all plastics in the ocean could exceed that of all fish by the year 2050.

"Anthropogenic litter is something we can do something about quite quickly if we want to," Tamara Galloway, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom, said.

Oysters were subjected to microplastics, in the form of polystyrene, under laboratory conditions. Researchers found these test animals produced smaller eggs, and sperms with less motility than the control group. After two months, adult oysters who consumed the particles produced 41 percent fewer offspring than the opposite group.

Consumption of microplastics also interfered with the ability of adults to properly process energy from food.

Galloway and other researchers on the study believe this study will assist in predicting how pollution may impact marine ecosystems around the world.

"Given their ubiquitous nature and small dimensions, the ingestion and impact of microplastics on marine life are a cause for concern, notably for filter feeders," researchers say.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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