The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”
—Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)
Last week we made public our last results on understanding biological systems: we discovered that some vertebrates (amphibians and fishes, together accounting for half the vertebrates on earth) DO produce chitin. Even more, the disruption of that chitin production results on deformities of fish embryos, a result forcing us to revaluate the impact of chitin synthesis inhibitors.
We discovered however something more. During the analysis of chitin we discovered a strange signal in the background noise, not corresponding to chitin. A further study revealed that the signal was produced by synthetic polymers (i.e. plastic) and in particular we confirmed the presence of polystyrene. The presence of these polymers in fishes is a consequence of the extraordinary ability of their mucosa to capture hydrophobic particles, a phenomenon very well known in humans. This raises to a complete new level the impact of microplastic in animals.
Serendipity is defined as: “the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” and in science is basically “too keep the eyes open”. Some of the greatest scientific discovers are produced by unexpected results, and it is the role of the scientist to keep the mind and eyes open to them.
Huffington Post published a great article on our (unexpected) finding and its implications: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/23/plastic-ocean-pollution-fish-health_n_6923872.html
The full article can be found here: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(15)00090-1
(Photo: AP Photo/5gyres.org, Carolyn Box)