Breakthrough Discovery: Our Immune System Guards Against Microplastics


Japanese scientists have recently achieved a significant breakthrough in understanding the effects of consuming microplastics. Their groundbreaking discovery reveals that our immune system has the remarkable ability to protect us from the potential harm caused by these minuscule particles.

Microplastics have been found in virtually every corner of our planet. From the highest mountain peaks to the deepest ocean depths, even in jet streams, these tiny plastic particles have made their presence known. Understanding the potentially toxic effects of microplastic exposure on our bodies has become a pressing concern.

In their quest to unravel the consequences of microplastic ingestion, the Japanese scientists made a fascinating revelation. They found that the same cellular signals responsible for guiding macrophages in the removal of dead cells from the body also guide them in eliminating microplastics.

However, before looking deeper into this discovery, it’s important to first grasp the process of apoptosis and efferocytosis. Apoptosis refers to the natural process by which dying or dead cells are cleared from the body. When a cell reaches the end of its life cycle, it sends signals to the body, indicating that it needs to be eliminated. Macrophages or dendritic cells play a vital role in this process. Macrophages, in particular, are powerful components of the immune system as they have the ability to engulf and digest pathogens targeted for removal.

A specific receptor in macrophages, known as Tim4, is designed to identify apoptotic cells and initiate their engulfment. This process is known as efferocytosis, or in the case of macrophages, “phagocytosis.” Once engulfed, the dead cell is enclosed within a liquid pocket, preventing its contents from seeping out and causing any harm to the macrophage or surrounding cells.

Impaired efferocytosis has been linked to numerous autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, cystic fibrosis, and asthma, among others. Understanding the intricate mechanisms behind efferocytosis and its role in maintaining a healthy immune system is crucial for developing potential treatments for these conditions.

Professor Masafumi Nakayama of Ritsumeikan University in Japan said, “We were keen to see if Tim4 bound to polystyrene which is composed of aromatic styrene units, and if this interaction perturbed an immune response.”

What they discovered was considered quite crucial in the realm of pollutant control, especially for those living in urban or suburban areas. Their finding shed major light on the most effective methods to regulate one’s exposure to pollutants.

When microplastics enter the body, they are primarily engulfed by macrophages. Professor Nakayama’s research revealed that this process does not trigger acute inflammation. By closely monitoring the release of common inflammatory compounds, such as nitric oxide, IL-1, TNF-alpha, and reactive oxygen species, typically associated with efferocytosis, no significant inflammation was observed.

Furthermore, the macrophages themselves did not suffer harm from engulfing microplastics. They efficiently engulfed polystyrene particles and continued performing their vital functions. However, the scientists did uncover a novel aromatic interaction between the Tim4 receptors and both polystyrene particles and another nanomaterial they were testing. These nanomaterials hindered the efferocytosis of dead cells in the vicinity.

In simpler terms, the presence of microplastics distracted the macrophages from effectively clearing out the dead cells that would normally be targeted for elimination. Consequently, the scientists concluded that low levels of microplastic ingestion do not induce inflammation and that macrophages have the ability to remove microplastics. However, excessive microplastic pollution can impede the removal of dead cells.

If individuals are concerned about potential excessive exposure to microplastic pollution, there are various therapeutic measures that can be employed to counteract this impairment. For instance, the consumption of senolytic compounds like grape seed extract, engaging in regular exercise, or undergoing heat stress therapy in a sauna may help mitigate the effects of microplastic pollution.

Additionally, installing microplastic-related water filters on taps and showerheads is another effective method for reducing the risk of microplastic contamination.

This newfound understanding of microplastic exposure and its effects empowers individuals to take proactive steps to minimize their exposure and address any potential risks. By adopting appropriate preventive measures and making informed lifestyle choices, individuals can play an active role in safeguarding their health and well-being in the face of microplastic pollution.