From the Great Pacific garbage patch to more disperse bits of trash, immense amounts of plastic and other garbage continue to amass in the ocean. However, some of that plastic pollution is harboring life. Scientists have discovered colonies of microbes thriving on tiny fragments of plastic floating in the open ocean. The team of scientists studying these new ocean habitats--called the "plastisphere"--collected marine plastic debris using fine-scale nets at locations in the North Atlantic Ocean. They discovered at least 1000 kinds of bacterial cells, forming a variety of complex microscopic communities.
Many microbial species on the debris samples remain unidentified, and identifying the microbes present isn't the only task at hand. As Science Daily reports, scientist Linda Amaral-Zettler says, "We're not just interested in who's there. We're interested in their function, how they're functioning in this ecosystem, how they're altering this ecosystem, and what's the ultimate fate of these particles in the ocean ... Are they sinking to the bottom of the ocean? Are they being ingested? If they're being ingested, what impact does that have?"
One debris sample studied mostly contained certain strains of Vibrio bacteria that cause cholera; disease-causing bacteria thriving on plastic instead of something less durable like driftwood may have a better chance of spreading disease across the ocean. However, some of the microbes found on the plastic debris may be capable of degrading hydrocarbons. The team found microscopic pits in the plastic surfaces on samples made of different kinds of resins. Genetic sequencing will identify these microbes, and further research will explore whether some of these microbes can actually digest the plastic garbage they find so appealing.
The plastisphere study was published online in Environmental Science & Technology.
via: Science Daily
image credit: Erik Zettler, Sea Education Association
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