What do you think happens when a marine animal eats a piece of plastic? The answer: The plastic can end up, undigested, in the creature’s belly. This was the case when scientists discovered a dead sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) with 22 kilograms (50 pounds) of plastic of all sizes—from drinking cups to flip-flops—in its stomach. Ingested trash like this can hurt and clog the digestive tract, leaving little room for real food. This can be observed in a great variety of animals, with seabirds particularly affected. Plastic trash in the ocean can also break down into really small pieces called microplastics, no bigger than half a centimeter (one-fifth of an inch) in size. Microplastics can be ingested by both large and small animals, and even plankton. One threat of microplastics is that they carry toxic chemicals that can invade and damage an animal’s cells. Finding out how these chemicals affect the health of sea creatures is the focus of Martina Capriotti’s research.
Capriotti was born and raised in the coastal town of San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. In her youth, she spent much of her time in the water, swimming since she was three years old, and then spent time as a lifeguard and a scuba diver as a teenager. It was an experience on one of her first dives that sparked her interest in marine conservation. As she scuba dived along a reef, observing the beautiful vegetal and animal life, she noticed a group of fish grazing next to discarded batteries and other trash. This observation made her realize the direct impact humans can have on the health of the marine environment. Determined to help protect the ocean she loves, Martina studied biology as a college undergraduate, then earned a master’s degree in marine biology, and a Ph.D. in life and health sciences. She focused on the field of aquatic ecotoxicology—the study of the effects of harmful chemicals on aquatic life—after working with Norwegian scientists to learn how salmon were being affected by chemical pollutants. Capriotti’s studies also focused on plasticizers, also called plastic additives. These molecules can be used during plastic production to make the material more flexible or transparent.
Over the last decade, scientists have discovered an alarming amount of plastic in the ocean. Microplastics are of particular concern, as they have been found everywhere in the ocean, from seafloor sediments to floating Arctic ice, and in marine organisms of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales.
Capriotti is concerned not only with the quantity of microplastics in the sea but also with the toxic chemicals they contain and transport. The Adriatic Sea, a narrow arm of the broader Mediterranean Sea, is particularly vulnerable to pollution as it is mostly enclosed by land and parts of it are shallow. Pollutants that enter the water adhere easily to the surfaces of microplastics, so when marine animals swallow plastic, they are also absorbing these chemicals into their body tissue. For her research project, Capriotti planned to collect microplastics from various locations in the Adriatic Sea, identify the chemicals found on those plastics, and conduct laboratory experiments to observe how the substances affect an animal’s metabolism and hormonal system. She is really interested in investigating a group of pollutants called “endocrine disruptors,” which are molecules that can mimic hormones once absorbed in a body, threatening the animal’s health as a consequence. For this particular ability, she calls them “molecular impostors.”
Capriotti is involved with protecting not only marine life but human life as well. As a member of the Italian Federation of Aquatic Rescue (FISA), she helps to train future maritime lifesavers. She also promotes drowning prevention campaigns.
Through her scientific research, Capriotti hopes to warn people of the dangers that plastics pose to human and marine life. One of her goals is to work with schools to help students lead the way in reducing plastic waste—for example, by using reusable bottles, cloth grocery bags, and glassware, or by avoiding straws or products with plastic packaging. As of 2020, she is working as a researcher along the Atlantic Coast of the United States to study the effects of microplastics and planktonic cells on the feeding of a special group of marine animals called suspension feeders (as they feed filtering seawater).