In vitro toxicity from a physical perspective of polyethylene microplastics based on statistical curvature change analysis

Daheui Choi, Jangsun Hwang, Junah Bang, Seora Han, Taeho Kim, Yoogyeong Oh, Youngdeok Hwang, Jonghoon Choi, Jinkee Hong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Microplastics which are gradually and randomly decompose into small fragment by exposure of physical and biological external stress are emerging as a significant threat to the all the environments. Here, we have demonstrated the in vitro toxicity of microplastics of two different shapes. To minimize the chemical effect, polyethylene (PE), was used. PE microplastics with two different shapes were prepared, high-density PE microbeads and irregularly ground low-density PE from bulk pellets. It is hypothesized that morphological characteristics and concentration of PE microplastics could affect cellular viability, immunity, and lysis. To quantify the randomness of the microplastic shape, the edge patterns of the generated PE microplastics were converted into numerical values and analyzed using a statistical method. A 10-fold difference in curvature value was observed between microbeads and ground microfragments. To correlate shape differences to toxicology, cells were exposed to PE microplastics on the demand of toxicology studies. We found that the higher concentration and rough structure were associated with the toxicity of plastics toward cells, pro-inflammatory cytokine release, and hemolysis, even though PE is buoyant onto medium. The PE microbeads did not exhibit severe cytotoxicity at any of the tested concentrations, but induced immune and hemolysis responses at high concentrations. When comparing the toxicity of different shapes of PE microplastics, we confirmed by statistical analysis that irregular-shape plastics with sharp edges and higher curvature differences may adversely affect cells, further having possibility to human toxicity in real environment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number142242
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Jan 15

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors confirm that there are no known conflicts of interest associated with this publication. This research was supported by Basic Science Research Program through the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) funded by the Ministry of Science and ICT ( NRF-2017R1E1A1A01074343 ).

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution

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