Researchers Suspect Plastics in Lobster Shell Disease
A visiting researcher at Massachusetts' Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory suspects environmental alkyphenols, formed by the breakdown of hard transparent plastics, as a potential cause for a debilitating shell disease affecting American lobsters.
Preliminary evidence from the lab of Hans Laufer suggests concentrations of alkyphenols may interfere with lobsters' ability to develop tough shells. With weakened shells, lobsters are susceptible to microbial invasions characteristic of the illness.
"Lobsters 'know' when their shell is damaged, and that's probably the reason when they have shell disease, why they molt more quickly," says Laufer, a professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at the University of Connecticut. "But ultimately, they still come down with the disease. And we think the presence of alkyphenols contributes to that."
Lobsters shed their shells multiple times in their lifetime. After molting, the outer surface of the soft and exposed lobster will harden. It is at this point that Laufer believes alkyphenols do damage.
Laufer discovered the alkyphenols in lobsters unexpectedly while investigating a lobster die off at Long Island Sound in 1999, when shell disease, first observed in the mid-1990s, was found to be increasing.
It was also the first time New York City sprayed mosquito populations to prevent the spread of West Nile virus. Laufer, who began his career as an insect endocrinologist, suspected the toxins from the sprayings may have contributed to the lobster die off. In 2001, while searching for the mosquito toxins in lobsters, he instead found alkyphenols.
"It's a real problem," Laufer says. "Plastics last a long time, but breakdown products last even longer. Perhaps shell disease is only the tip of the iceberg of a more basic problem of endocrine disrupting chemicals in marine environments."