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

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees 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.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

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