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)
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 12:00 AM

You May Like

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go 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.
For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leadersi
X
Aru Pande
April 01, 2015 9:09 PM
The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leaders

The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Buhari: Nigeria Has ‘Embraced Democracy’

Nigeria woke up to a new president-elect Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari. But people say democracy is the real winner as the country embarks on its first peaceful handover of power since the end of military rule in 1999. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Abuja.
Video

Video Tiny Camera Sees Inside Blood Vessels

Ahead of any surgical procedure, doctors try to learn as much as possible about the state of the organs they plan to operate on. A new camera developed in the Netherlands can now make that easier - giving surgeons an incredibly detailed look inside blood vessels, all the way to the patient’s heart. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Latin American Groups Seek Fans at Texas Music Festival

Latin American music groups played all over Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest festival, and some made fans out of locals as well as people from around the world who had come to hear music. Such exposure can boost such groups' image back home. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Stockton Community, Police, Work to Improve Relations

Relations are tense between minority communities and police departments around the United States following police shootings that have generated widely-publicized protests. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Stockton, California, where police and community groups are working toward solutions, with backing from Washington.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More