Marine Microbes Found Feasting On Plastic


Photo by Wonderlane via Flickr Creative Commons

Plastics have officially entered the food chain, as seen in the deadly effect things like Styrofoam and bottle caps have on sea turtles and albatross, and even whales. However, how far into the food chain is plastic going? It seems even microbes are eating their fill, though whether or not they're actually digesting the plastic or just passing it up the chain to larger life forms is still a big question. Regardless, researchers including Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and colleagues have found bacteria that is feasting on plastics found in the ocean. Nature.com reports that the researchers used an electron microscope to look at minute scraps of plastic, including a piece of fishing line, a plastic bag, and other items from the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic, and found that each piece is "an oasis, a reef of biological activity," according to Mincer.

Setting up home in the pits of the plastic was bacteria-like cells, which appeared to be eating away at the surface. According to the article, this is the first evidence of marine bacteria breaking down plastics in the ocean, though microbes that digest plastic have been found in landfills.

The problem of course, is finding out if these microbes are actually digesting the plastic, turning it into a non-toxic substance again, or if they're just eating it and passing the chemicals right up the food chain. Researchers don't know yet if this is good news for plastic pollution, or cause for concern over how plastics and the toxins they contain are becoming part of the food chain.

"Genetic analysis shows that the bacteria on the plastic differ from those in the surrounding seawater or on nearby seaweed, says microbiologist Linda Amaral-Zettler of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole. So far, the DNA sequences obtained by her lab show that almost 25% of the bacteria on one polyethylene surface were vibrios, bacteria from the same group as the cholera bacterium," and Amaral-Zettler added that it's unknown yet if these strains are pathogenic.

The researchers are now working to learn more about the larger impact of these tiny plastic-munching microbes.

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Tags: Ecology | Plastics | Pollution