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Weckhuysen, B., Have, I., Meirer, F., Oord, R., Zettler, E., Sebille, E., Amaral-Zettler, L.,
Millimeter- and micrometer-sized plastics are well-documented in aquatic ecosystems, but little is known about sub-micrometer particles because conventional analytical techniques lack sufficient spatial resolution or the spectroscopic means to unambiguously identify individual nanometer-sized plastic particles. We combined the spatial resolution of atomic force microscopy with chemical information from infrared spectroscopy to detect, identify, and count nanoplastics down to 20 nm in diameter in samples from different depths in the South Atlantic Ocean. We present evidence for the presence of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) nanoplastics in different states of degradation at 5000 m. Using lab-based ageing of PET, we demonstrate that nanoplastics can form even without light or interaction with the plastisphere, and that macroscopic PET items are a plausible source of PET nanoplastics in the ocean.