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

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years 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.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs