News / Science & Technology

Bacteria Thrive on Ocean Plastic Debris

A section of plastic filament net is among the debris pulled from the open ocean. (Credit: G. Boyd, SEA Education Association)
A section of plastic filament net is among the debris pulled from the open ocean. (Credit: G. Boyd, SEA Education Association)
TEXT SIZE - +
Rosanne Skirble
Plastic pollution in the ocean is harboring colonies of bacteria that could be harmful, not only to marine animals, but also to humans.
    
Thoughtless habits and practices - a bottle dropped here, a bag thrown there - are creating garbage dumps in the world’s oceans. The flotilla of debris moves with the currents and harms fish and marine mammals that either ingest or get entangled in it.

But for some organisms, it's home. Scientists have discovered a wide diversity of microbes colonizing and thriving on plastic that is polluting the ocean in the so-called plastisphere.  
 
Forever trash
 
It takes about six weeks for a plastic bag or bottle to ride the surface currents from the U.S. East Coast to the Sargasso Sea, in the center of the North Atlantic. The area is a gyre, essentially a big whirlpool that traps and swirls the debris which, unlike other types of trash in the ocean, never bio-degrades.

Bacteria Colonies Thrive on Ocean Plastic Debris
Bacteria Colonies Thrive on Ocean Plastic Debrisi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

This is where Tracy Mincer, a microbiologist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and colleagues from the Marine Biological Laboratory, joined students aboard a Sea Education Association vessel to sample plastic debris for microbes.  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
“We hypothesized that the microbes on plastic were specifically interacting with it, rather than just a random association," Mincer said. "It’s not just flypaper that is just grabbing on to anything. Things are actually specifically interacting with plastic for a reason.”

The team skimmed the surface with fine nets, collecting confetti size bits of plastic. They analyzed the plastic with electron scanning tools and gene sequencing techniques. They found rich colonies of bacteria, including some that they hadn’t expected, which they called 'pit formers.'

  • Sea Education Association (SEA) sailing research ship Corwith Cramer under sail. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)
  • SEA Semester Chief Mate Rocky Hadler tows a net aboard the Crowith Cramer. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)
  • SEA Semester students Allison Adams and Annie Scofield retrieve nets with plastic and plankton in them. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)
  • Section of plastic filament net pulled aboard from the open ocean. (Credit: G. Boyd, SEA Education Association)
  • Plastic marine debris pieces picked from net contents. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)
  • Students and scientists work in the shipboard laboratory. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)
  • SEA student Allison Adams sorts plastic under a microscope. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)
  • An experiment shows biofilm of micro-organisms that develop after only a couple of weeks in the open ocean. (Credit: Lily Patterson & Helena Oldenbourg)
  • A piece of trash that got away hosts variety of single-celled organisms in the Sargasso Sea. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)
  • Scientists suspect that the pit forming bacteria may play a role in degrading plastics. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)
  • Pit-forming bacteria on pieces of weathered pieces of plastic retrieved from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. (Credit: E. Zettler, SEA Education Association)

“We were surprised when we saw microbes that appeared to be hydrolyzing [breaking down] the plastic and etching into it," said Mincer, "as well as just a whole other amazing ecosystem that was thriving on this plastic surface.”

The organisms in this plastisphere were different from those in the surrounding nutrient-poor water, indicating that the plastic acts as an artificial microbial reef, one that could harbor disease-causing pathogens and other harmful algal species.   

“It’s certainly possible. And a lot of time certain toxins are oily in nature and they will absorb on to the plastic, but when the microbes interact with it they could be releasing those toxins off of the plastics,” Mincer said.

Hormonal effects

Some of those additives are known to have hormonal effects in humans.  

More than 90 percent of the trash floating on the ocean surface is plastic. The largest of the planet's five gyre sites is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas. Mincer says with so much plastic out there, it is important to know how it impacts marine species and by extension, people.  

“Fish are eating the plastic," Mincer said. "Are they picking up certain toxins from the plastic or not? And what does happen to plastic once it goes out into this environment? Does it eventually degrade into little tiny bits? And then what does it do?  Do the microbes make it heavier and make it sink quicker? Does it go away?  Is it a problem?”

The initial survey identified about 1,000 microbes that live on and interact with plastic. The next step is to sequence their genomes to get a better idea of whether or not they could be harmful pathogens.

Related story by Zulima Palacio -
Plastics in Oceans, More Damaging Than Climate Change:

Plastics in Oceans: More Damaging Than Climate Changei
|| 0:00:00
X
November 04, 2011

You May Like

Multimedia Relatives of South Korean Ferry Victims Fire at Authorities

46 people are confirmed dead, but some 250 remain trapped inside sunken ferry More

War Legacy Haunts Vietnam, US Relations

$84 million project aims to clean up soil contaminated by Agent Orange More

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid