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Nanoparticle Analysis and Search for Anthropocene Markers in High Arctic Biological Archives

P.Legagneux, J. Gigault, nanoP, BigFormat

Photo Credit: Marie LeBagousse- Macroscopic photo of a bird feather

Research Team



The impact of human activity on ecosystems has spiraled out of control in the last 20 years, with the polar regions having a far greater impact than anywhere else on the planet. By 2020, we will have reached the point where the materials we now produce will exceed all the biomass produced by all living organisms on Earth.

This flow of materials is already reaching Arctic ecosystems directly via maritime transport, but more importantly indirectly via atmospheric and oceanographic currents. Among these anthropogenic materials, one size fraction - nanoparticles - has been largely ignored, even though they can cause far greater damage than their micrometric or millimetric counterparts. Because of their very small size, high diffusivity, and large specific surface area, even in the ultra-trace state, these nanometric particles are highly reactive with biota. They are likely to be transported over long distances and increase the bioavailability of a wide range of contaminants within organisms.

We propose to investigate and document the presence of nanoparticles and associated contaminants in Arctic ecosystems using biological archives (vegetation, bird feathers and eggs) for which we have long time series. The results obtained will be compared with available information on major environmental changes over the past 150 years, allowing us to measure the arrival of these particles in the High Arctic.

Progress (Year one- April, 2024)

The first year was devoted to developing analytical methods to characterize the presence of anthropogenic nanoparticles and their associated contaminants in the various biological archives of the Arctic. Our initial focus was on snow goose eggs from Bylot Island. In terms of associated contaminants, perfluoro and polyfluoroalkyl substances were analyzed in collaboration with the ECCC (Philippe Thomas). For metal contaminants, a digestion method was developed in collaboration with Marie Le Bagousse to extract all metals while optimizing the ICP-MS characterization parameters to distinguish the presence of contaminants from the natural background of elements. Regarding nanoplastics in eggs, we are finalizing an extraction method based on potassium hydroxide and dichloromethane combined with pyrolysis detection coupled with high-resolution mass spectrometry to identify polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene markers in eggs. During this first year, we focused on developing an in-house calibration method using deuterated polystyrene to quantify nanoplastics and overcome interference from natural macromolecules present in the samples that interfere with their detection and quantification.

In a second step, we will look at the other biological archives available to us: snow goose feathers collected on Bylot Island and those recovered from museums, as well as the vegetation on Bylot Island. We have initiated initial extraction tests on the feathers to characterize not only nanoparticles (plastics and metals), but also organic contaminants (PFAS, PCB, etc.) and trace metals (Hg, Pb, etc.). One of the novel aspects of our project is the characterization of PFAS nanoparticles using a method we are working on with Prof. Sébastien Sauvé of the Université de Montréal. The analyses are in progress and will be covered by the remaining and future funds.

List of communications

  1. Poster presentation by Marie Le Bagousse at the CEN annual conference (February 2024) and at the INQ conference (May 2024): “Tendance temporelle des contaminants chez la Grande Oie des neiges au cours du siècle dernier”, Marie Le Bagousse, Pierre Legagneux, Gilles Gauthier, Philippe Thomas, Julien Gigault. Award of excellence for poster presentation at the INQ conference.
  2. Legagneux, P. Biology, architecture and waste management in the Far North, Les années lumières - Radio-Canada 19-11-2023

Scholarship Supplement

Congratulations to doctoral student Marie Le Bagousse, who was awarded a $7500 CEN scholarship supplement for her 2023/2024 year, and renewed for 2024/2025.

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