Scientists Delve into the World of Plastisphere, Community of Microbes Living on Plastic Debris in Oceans

First Posted: Feb 25, 2014 02:55 AM EST

A team of scientists uncovered how multitudes of microbes colonizing plastics marine debris affect the ocean ecosystem and harm the invertebrates, humans and other animals.

Plastic leads in ocean debris and is posing serious concerns about its impact on the health of the marine life. These huge masses of plastic debris floating across vast parts of the world's oceans carry colonies of microbes, and this new ecological community is called 'Plastisphere'.

Initial observations reveal the presence of nearly 1,000 different kinds of microbes living on these plastic flecks. Most of these Plastisphere inhabitants include bacteria that are known to trigger serious diseases in both animals and humans.

new finding shows that these microbial colonizers are extremely quick in developing visible clusters on the plastic debris. Studies have also revealed that certain types of harmful bacteria prefer plastic to other host forms. To solve the mystery of the presence of bacteria on plastics, the study team is verifying whether fish or other marine creatures support the existence of these pathogens by ingesting the plastic. If this is true, then the bacteria would gain excessive nutrients as they go through the guts of the fish.

According to Tracy Mincer, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., this latest information may help scientists get a better insight in to the potential threat these bacteria cause as well as the role of the Plastisphere in the much larger ocean ecosystem. Apart from this, the finding will also help in analyzing whether the community of the these microbial organisms change the levels of important nutrients in the water. After studying all this, the researchers can use this data to lower the impact of plastic pollution in oceans.

"One of the benefits of understanding the Plastisphere right now and how it interacts with biota in general, is that we are better able to inform materials scientists on how to make better materials and, if they do get out to sea, have the lowest impact possible," said Mincer, who discovered the Plastisphere last year along with Linda Amaral-Zettler at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and Erik Zettler at the SEA Education Association, both also in Woods Hole.

The team hopes that using this information the scientists can estimate the age of the floating plastic islands, which can help determine whether this debris are breaking down in the water. At the same time they can track the source of the plastic debris and how the microbes and the plastic can harm the organism that come in contact with them.

"It is clear," said Amaral-Zettler, "that the Plastisphere definitely has a function out there in the ocean" and these experiments seek to quantify what it is."

This research was presented Monday,at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting, which is co-sponsored by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, The Oceanography Society and the American Geophysical Union.

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