Moldable plastics (polycaprolactone) can be acutely toxic to developing zebrafish and activate nuclear receptors in mammalian cells

12 April 2024, Version 1
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


Popularized on social media, hand-moldable plastics are formed by consumers into tools, trinkets, and dental prosthetics. Despite the anticipated dermal and oral contact, manufacturers share little information with consumers about these materials. Inherent to their function, moldable plastics pose a risk of dermal and oral exposure to unknown leachable substances. We analyzed 12 moldable plastics advertised for modeling and dental applications and determined them to be polycaprolactone (PCL) or thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). The bioactivities of the most popular brands advertised for modeling applications of each type of polymer were evaluated using a zebrafish embryo bioassay. Both products were sold as microplastic-sized resin pellets. While water-borne exposure to the TPU pellets did not affect the targeted developmental endpoints at any concentration tested, the PCL pellets were acutely toxic above 1 pellet/mL. Aqueous leachates of the PCL pellets demonstrated similar toxicity. Methanolic extracts from the PCL pellets were assayed for their bioactivity using the Attagene FACTORIAL platform. Of the 69 measured endpoints, the extracts activated nuclear receptors and transcription factors for xenobiotic metabolism (pregnane X receptor, PXR), lipid metabolism (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma, PPARg), and oxidative stress (nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2, NRF2). By non-targeted high-resolution comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography (GC×GC-HRT), we tentatively identified several compounds in the methanolic extracts, including PCL oligomers, a phenolic antioxidant, and residues of suspected anti-hydrolysis and crosslinking additives. In a follow-up zebrafish embryo bioassay, because of its stated high purity, biomedical grade PCL was tested to mitigate any confounding effects due to chemical additives in the PCL pellets; it elicited comparable acute toxicity. From these orthogonal and complementary experiments, we suggest that the toxicity was due to oligomers and nanoplastics released from the PCL rather than chemical additives. These results challenge the perceived and assumed inertness of plastics and highlight their multiple sources of toxicity.



Supplementary materials

Supporting Information
Extended materials and methods; image of moldable plastic pellets (Figure S1); morphometrics and colorimetrics of moldable plastic pellets (Figures S2 – S8); ATR-FTIR spectra of moldable plastics (Figures S9 – S21); morphometrics and colorimetrics of PCL and TPU-based moldable plastics (Figures S22 – S29); confirmatory zebrafish study of consumer-grade PCL mortality (Figure S30); TF- and NR- FACTORIAL assay of extraction black (Figure S31); GC×GC-HRT mass spectra of chromatographic peaks (Figures S32 – S42)
Supporting Information
Solvent extract data (Table S1); TF- and NR- FACTORIAL assay endpoint definitions (Table S2); TF- and NR- FACTORIAL assay endpoint data (Table S3-S4); Top library hits for FACTORIAL assay results (Table S5); List of products and companies that have 510(k) pre-market notification for Product Code EBG, "Temporary crown and bridge resin." (Table S6); List of products and companies that have 510(k) pre-market notification for Product Code EBF, "Tooth shade resin material." (Table S7)


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