Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Identify Irreversible Adverse Effects of Microbeads on Marine Animals’ Growth and Development

A research team at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has demonstrated that the growth and development of two marine invertebrates – the pollution-tolerant slipper limpets and the commercially-harvested bristle worms (a common fish bait which recycles nutrients in the ecosystem) – are prone to suffer irreversible damage under exposure to high concentration of microbeads.


The findings – discovered by a team of undergraduate and postgraduate students led by Prof Karen Chan, Assistant Professor from the Division of Life Science at HKUST – have shown for the first time that the detrimental effects of microplastics - tiny plastic pellets found in many health, beauty and household products, are not confined to only upscale, commonly consumed marine invertebrates like abalones and oysters, but also take a toll on tough invasive and nuisance species like the slipper limpets. If these common slipper limpets were exposed to a high concentration of microbeads during their larval stage, they would not resume their original growth rates even after the removal of microbeads from their surroundings.


“Our research has shown that a high concentration of microplastics has a long-lasting and irremediable negative impact on the slipper limpets. However, these snails are unfazed by microplastics at an environmental concentration similar to that in Hong Kong waters. If they are more resilient than other native species, the invasive snails could further threaten the local species’ survival and ecological balance,” said Prof Chan. “Despite all the adverse impacts these minute plastic pollutants have on the marine ecosystems, they are still being used in many personal care products around the world – including here in Hong Kong.”


Some governments – such as that in Canada[1] and the UK[2], have banned the use of microplastics, but it is still legal in many developed countries including Germany and Japan. In Hong Kong, up to 9.4 billion microbeads are being released to our coastal waters every day[3]. Worldwide, an estimated 15 to 51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the ocean as of 2016[4].


“To help save our ocean, we should start with ourselves today. Avoid products with microplastics, think twice before consuming single-use plastics such as straws, bottled drinks as they do degrade into small pieces, and spread the word – do something before it is too late,” Prof Chan pleaded.


The team’s other findings on bristle worms have shown that the regeneration rate of their tail is much reduced under exposure to a high concentration of microbeads, and such regenerative ability is crucial for their survival. Smaller beads (8-12 micrometers in diameter) were also found to be more detrimental than larger ones.


The team’s findings were recently published in the scientific journals Environmental Pollution and Marine Pollution Bulletin.






Research and Innovation |
HKUST Scientists Reveal How Human Brains Keep Balance

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has discovered the mechanism of how human brains turn on and off neuronal activities, providing an important foundation to understand a wide range of neurologic conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and ataxia-telangiectasia diseases.

“As with all things in life, healthy brain function depends on a balance of neuronal activities. We think of our brains as active - moving a leg and saying a word are all "active" events, but it is just as important that our brains be able to stop these actions,” said Cheng Aifang, a postgraduate student from the Division of Life Science who made the discovery under the guidance of the division’s head and Chair Professor Karl Herrup. “Yet it was not clear how our brains actually perform this go/stop function until now.”

The team discovered that the brain balances excitation and inhibition through regulating ATM and ATR – large kinase enzymes, levels.  In pathological conditions, when ATM levels drop for example, ATR levels increase, vice versa.  In addition, the team also discovered that ATM only regulates excitatory synaptic vesicles while ATR is responsible for only the inhibitory ones.  This is achieved by controlling the movement of these tiny synaptic vesicles in the neuronal synapse – the gap between two neurons that regulates information flow in the brain.

“The discoveries are in the realm of basic research, but they have important implications for human disease” said Prof Karl Herrup, also director of the Super-Resolution Imaging Center (SRIC). “Epilepsy, for example, is a condition where one of the problems is that inhibition fails. As our findings would predict, humans with too little ATR have a problem with epilepsy, while people with ATM deficiency by contrast are ataxic - a reduced ability to make finely controlled movements and keep the proper E/I ratio. This means that there is a yin-yang relationship between ATM and ATR.  And this is only the beginning. We believe that our work has potential relevance to a much broader range of neurologic conditions.”

The findings were published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month.

Utilizing super-resolution microscopy offered by at HKUST, the researchers were able to view the cellular location of the two kinases at ultra-high magnification.  The custom designed super-resolution microscope with active stage locking provided the stability needed to obtain high-resolution images.

“One of the challenges we faced was that even at high magnification, all vesicles look pretty much alike,” said Prof Du Shengwang, physics professor and Associate Director of SRIC.  “To provide differentiation, we developed a three-color version of our super-resolution system, which allowed the team to prove that ATM and ATR were never found on the same VAMP2-containing synaptic vesicle.”

About The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology 

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) ( is a world-class research university that focuses on science, technology and business as well as humanities and social science.  HKUST offers an international campus, and a holistic and interdisciplinary pedagogy to nurture well-rounded graduates with global vision, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking. HKUST attained the highest proportion of internationally excellent research work in the Research Assessment Exercise 2014 of Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee, and is the world’s second in the latest QS’ Top 50 under 50 ranking.  Its graduates were ranked 12th worldwide and top in Greater China in Global Employability University Survey 2017.

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