Pollutants like microplastics may be causing growth defects in fish, including skeletal deformities, in the Cauvery river, a new study by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has revealed. Published in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, the study was led by Upendra Nongthomba, Professor at the Department of Molecular Reproduction, Development and Genetics (MRDG), in the IISc.

Nongthomba, who is fond of fresh water fish noticed the deformities in them and did a research on this aquatic species. “Over the years, I have cherished going to the backwaters of the Krishna Raja Sagara [KRS] Dam and having fried fish on the Cauvery River bank,” he was quoted as saying in a press release. But in recent times, he noticed physical deformities in some of them and began to wonder whether the quality of water may have something to do with it, the statement read.

“Water is essential for everyone, including animals and plants. When it is polluted, it is capable of causing diseases, including cancer,” Abass Toba Anifowoshe, a PhD student in Nongthomba’s lab, and the first author of the study said. Nongthomba’s lab, therefore, conducted a comprehensive study of pollution at the KRS dam and its potential effects on fish.

Testing methodology

They collected water samples from three different locations with varying speeds of water flow — fast-flowing, slow-flowing, and stagnant — since water speed is known to affect the concentration of pollutants. In the first part of the study, Nongthomba’s team analysed the physical and chemical parameters of the water samples. All but one of them fell within the prescribed limits.

The exception was dissolved oxygen (DO), whose levels were much lower than they needed to be in samples collected from the slow-flowing and stagnant sites. Water from these sites also had microbes such as Cyclops, Daphnia, Spirogyra, Spirochaeta and E.coli, well-known bio-indicators of water contamination.

Using a technique called Raman spectroscopy, they detected microplastics — minute pieces of plastic often invisible to the naked eye — and toxic chemicals containing the cyclohexyl functional group (a functional group refers to atoms in a compound that determine its chemical properties).

Further investigations

Microplastics are found in several household and industrial products, and chemicals containing the cyclohexyl group, such as cyclohexyl isocyanate, are commonly used in agriculture and the pharmaceutical industry. In the second part of the study, Nongthomba’s team investigated whether pollutants in water could account for the developmental abnormalities seen in wild fish.

They treated embryos of the well-known model organism, zebrafish, with water samples collected from the three sites, and found that those exposed to water from the slow-flowing and stagnant sites experienced skeletal deformities, DNA damage, early cell death, heart damage, and increased mortality.

These defects were seen even after microbes were filtered out, suggesting that microplastics and the cyclohexyl functional groups are responsible for the ailments in the fish. The researchers also found unstable molecules called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species) in the cells of the fish that developed abnormally.

According to the statement, the OS build-up is known to damage DNA and affect animals in ways similar to what Abass and Nongthomba saw in fish treated with water from the slow-flowing and stagnant sites. Other studies have shown that microplastics and chemicals with the cyclohexyl group lead to decreased DO, which in turn triggers ROS accumulation in animals like fish.

“The concentrations we have reported may not be alarming yet for humans, but long-term effects can't be ruled out,” the researcher said. However, he also said he needs to understand how exactly microplastics enter and affect the host.