Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Do you know what’s on your plastic?!

Erik Zettler, Sea Education Association

Scientists recently discovered tiny organisms prospering on pieces of plastic that are found in the ocean. Otherwise known as the ‘plastisphere’, these microorganisms have found themselves a home in our ‘garbage’. It is the same garbage that has the potential to make its way into the ocean and possibly be ingested by a multitude of animals. Will these microorganisms have an effect on the marine environment? Will they be able to enter into the food web?

A group of scientists from Sea Education Association, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Marine Biological Laboratory, studied these questions while scanning various pieces of marine debris throughout the North Atlantic Ocean.  At the conclusion of their study, they identified over 1000 various colonies of bacterial cells. In contrast to the microorganisms generally found within the seawater, these bacteria were different, raising the possibility that the plastic pieces form an “artificialmicrobial reef” for the microorganisms. Plastic, unlike other material commonly found in the ocean (i.e. feathers, wood, etc.), generally lasts longer creating a permanent residence for the bacteria on the ‘artificial microbial reef’. Because plastic is lightweight and robust, it is able to prevail in the surface waters of the marine environment allowing for the plastisphere to exist.

While these organisms are, in fact, microscopic, they are able to thrive on pieces of plastic of various sizes, some “no bigger than the head of a pin”. With plastic accumulation in the ocean becoming more common, this ‘plastisphere’ can represent a combination of these small fragments.

This discovery opens the door to better understanding the role microorganisms can play in the marine environment and how that role can impact varying types of marine life. The plastisphere represents a new, innovative way that bacteria have evolved transportation from one location to the next. How will this new mode of transmission impact the surrounding communities? Will this increase the presence of water-based pathogens that proliferate and cause disease such as cholera and other gastrointestinal diseases? That is something scientists are still researching.

“Scientists Discover Thriving Colonies of Microbes in Ocean ‘Plastisphere’.” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Media Relations Office.  Web.  June 27, 2013.

Wright, S.L., Thompson, R.C., and Galloway, T.S.  The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: A review.  Environmental Pollution 178: 483-492, 2013. 

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