RESPONSE – Towards a Risk-Based Assessment of Microplastic Pollution in Marine Ecosystems

Start Date

September 2020

End Date

September 2023

Funding Body

Joint Programming Initiative, Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans (JPI Oceans)


Prof Francesco Regoli – Polytechnic University of Marche, Department of Life and Environmental Sciences

Project Partners

Polytechnic University of Marche, Department of Life and Environmental Sciences, Tallinn University of Technology Department of Marine Systems, University of Bordeaux , Laboratory EPOC, University of Vigo, Marine Biology and Ecology (ECOTOX Team), National Institute of Aquatic Resources, Section for Ocean and Arctic, University of Algarve, Centre of Marine and Environmental Research, University College Cork, MaREI, the SFI Centre for Energy, Climate, and Marine, Environmental Research Institute, Ifremer, Centro Interdisciplinar de Investigação Marinha e Ambiental (CIIMAR), National Research Council Institute for the study of Anthropic Impacts and Sustainability in the Marine Environment, University of Oslo, Department of Biosciences, Örebro University/School of Science and Technology MTM Research Centre, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, Aquatic Ecology & Toxicology; Center for Organismal Studies, Universiteit Antwerpen, Biology

Principal Investigator

Kathrin Kopke

Research Area

Coastal and Marine Systems




The RESPONSE project brings together 14 partner institutions from across Europe with expertise in oceanography, environmental chemistry, ecotoxicology, experimental ecology and modelling to answer key research questions about the fate and biological effects of microplastics and nanoplastics in marine ecosystems. We’ll be identifying possible accumulation zones in European coastal ecosystems by studying hydrological transport dynamics; analysing the abundance and type of micro- and nanoplastics found in marine species by sampling representative marine animals; identifying how plastic particles, along with other environmental stressors, affect the health of species and food webs; and synthesising this research into a Weight of Evidence model.

Aims & Objectives

RESPONSE aims to develop a model that will support the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive in monitoring marine plastic pollution. This will be achieved through the realisation of the following objectives:  

  • Gain new knowledge on the spatial and temporal distribution of microplastics and nanoplastics in marine ecosystems
  • Characterise ecological thresholds for specific characteristics of microplastics that can affect their ingestion and toxicity in marine organisms
  • Investigate the ecotoxicological hazard of still unexplored particles such as nanoplastics and biodegradable polymers
  • Provide a quantitative model for assessing the potential impact of MPs in the marine environment, considering the environmental impact of multiple stressors
  • Set up an analytical Smart Hub that will share innovative technologies and application expertise for analytical needs, along with contributing to methodological improvement and training
  • Increase public understanding of the ecological risk of microplastics and nanoplastics and increase public action.

Work Packages

RESPONSE’s research is divided into eight work packages that cover different but interrelated aspects of the project.

WP1 –  Monitoring Microplastics in European coastal Areas

Project Lead: Francesca Garaventa (CNR-IAS)

Work Package 1 comprises field sampling activities that cover a wide geographical area including the Adriatic Sea, Western Mediterranean Sea, North East Atlantic Ocean, North Sea, and Baltic Sea. It aims to provide novel insights into the vertical distribution of microplastics along the water column from the surface layer to the sediments, characterizing the number, shapes, and size classes of biological relevance, their correlation with microplastics bioavailability and oceanographic dynamics. Seawater, sediments, and biota that differ in their structural and functional organisation (e.g. plankton, benthos, and fish) will also be sampled in different periods to evaluate seasonal differences according to variations of both environmental factors and human pressures. The main aim will not be a monitoring study per se, but rather the validation of ecologically relevant strategies for assessing the distribution pathway of microplastics in marine ecosystems and their biological impact.

WP2 – Biological Fate of Microplastics and Nanoplastics

Project Lead: Ronny Blust (Universiteit Antwerpen)

Work Package 2 will investigate, under controlled ecologically-relevant experimental conditions, how specific characteristics of microplastics influence key biological mechanisms in a range of organisms (e.g. zooplankton, copepods, jellyfish, mussels, and benthic fish), such as ingestion, residence time, depuration, and translocation from digestive tracts to other organs. The overall results of WP2 will contribute to defining weights and ecological thresholds for different plastic types, sizes, and shapes useful for the calibration of the Weight of Evidence model in WP6. 

WP3 – Biomarkers in Ecological Risk of Microplastics

Project Lead: Ketil Hylland (University of Oslo)

Work Package 3 will develop a biomarker-based approach and an integrated elaboration procedure that will be of particular relevance for assessing the ecological risk of microplastics in the marine environment. WP3 will investigate the onset of chronic and subtle effects on the sensitivity of organisms towards additional multiple stressors. A representative sample of traditional species (e.g. mussels and fish) and innovative model organisms (e.g. jellyfish) from those tested in WP2, will be utilised in this work package and exposed in mesocosms for long-term periods (> 2 months) to assess the importance of size and shape of microplastics in modulating cellular responsiveness and induced sensitivity to secondary stressors including those related to global change or anthropogenic pollution. The overall results of WP3 will contribute to defining the ecological risk of MPs in the marine environment through the integration with Weight of Evidence model in WP6.

WP4 – Bioassays in Ecological Risk of Microplastics/Nanoplastics

Project Lead: Ricardo Beiras (Universidade de Vigo)

Work Package 4 is mostly based on dedicated laboratory studies specifically oriented to investigate the chronic effects of microplastics at the organismal level, validating the correct use of a battery of bioassays. A typology of tested microplastics will include leachates of field-collected plastics, biodegradable polymers and nanoplastics as an emerging challenge that remains poorly characterized. The results of bioassays will not be evaluated as individual tests, but elaborated as “integrated batteries”, considering the toxicological relevance of all tested endpoints, responsiveness of the species and experimental conditions. The results of this work package will contribute to defining an additional line of evidence for the Weight of Evidence model approach in field conditions.

WP5 – Effects of Microplastics on Ecological Functioning

Project Lead: Torkel Nielsen (National Institute of Aquatic Resources (DTU AQUA)

Work Package 5 will explore the effects of microplastics on selected indicators of ecological structure and functioning. Experiments will identify critical environmental thresholds at which microplastics can affect physiological processes in marine organisms, allocation and the related consequences on depositional processes of microplastics in sediments. The knowledge gained will establish a robust basis for the functional mapping of hot-spots for potential microplastic impacts in the marine environment, which simultaneously consider the link between exposure conditions and predicted biological effects across levels of biological organization. The main indices to describe ecological functioning will be converted into a mathematical tool for the development of an additional line of evidence within the Weight of Evidence model in WP6.

WP6 – Weight of Evidence (WOE) Model for Microplastics

Project Lead: Francesco Regoli (Universita Politecnica delle Marche, UNIVPM)

In Work Package 6, a quantitative Weight of Evidence model will be applied to integrate various lines of evidence obtained in RESPONSE work packages, which will allow for a better assessment of biological effects and ecological risk of microplastics in the marine environment.  The development of a dedicated and software-assisted tool will represent a sound support facility for monitoring guidelines and policy makers ensuring both scientific reliability and synthetic indices for stakeholders. WP6 will also develop a multispecies uptake and accumulation model for different types of plastics and their sizes, based on existing and newly generated information from project activities.

WP7 – “Smart Hub” of Analytical Facilities

Project Lead: Ronny Blust (Universiteit Antwerpen)

Work Package 7 will establish a diffused Smart Hub of analytical facilities to overcome methodological problems in particle characterization, covering particle dimensions from small microplastics (< 100 μm) to nanoplastics. The Smart Hub will provide a comprehensive combination of analytical techniques to characterize polymer typology, particle size and shapes, surface charge, and sorbed compounds. The instrumental facilities and expertise necessary to support analytical needs, harmonization, and standardization of common procedures will be provided by the University of Antwerpen, University of Heidelberg, Örebro University, Polytechnic University of Marche, and Perkin Elmer.

WP8 – Communications and Dissemination

Project Lead: Kathrin Kopke (MaREI Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork)

Work Package 8 will communicate and disseminate project findings and outputs to a range of audiences, such as public authorities relevant to European directives, regional sea conventions, private sector organisations and industries, academia, and the general public to increase awareness of microplastics and associated concerns. WP8 will employ several tools and targeted dissemination approaches through the project website, fact sheets and e-newsletters, ensuring project information is circulated to and assimilated by project audiences across disciplines and sectors.

Funding Statement

Response is funded by the Joint Programming Initiative for Healthy Oceans and Seas (JPI Oceans) through support from the following national funding agencies: Belgium – The Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO); Denmark – The Innovation Fund Denmark (IFD); Estonia – The Ministry of the Environment of the Estonian Republic (MoE)’ and the Estonian Research Council (ETAgz); France – The National Research Agency (ANR); Germany – The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF); Ireland – The Marine Institute (MI) and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (DHPLG); Italy – The Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR); Norway – The Research Council of Norway (RCN); Portugal – The Science & Technology Foundation (FCT); Spain – The Spanish State Research Agency (AEI); Sweden – The Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (FORMAS).