Published in Environment 360, November 13th, 2013
The plastic debris that litters the world's oceans has developed its
own unique and diverse microbial ecosystem, which scientists have
dubbed the "plastisphere."
Members of the rich microbial ecosystem
living on plastic debris are shown in these scanning electron microscope
images: a) a diatom and bacterial filaments; b) filamentous
cyanobacteria; c) a predatory ciliate in foreground covered with
symbiotic bacteria (inset), along with diatoms, bacteria, and
filamentous cells; d) microbial cells that have pitted the surface of a
piece of plastic debris. All scale bars are 10 micrometers. (Image
credit: Zettler, et al., Environmental Science & Technology)
The plastic debris that litters the world's oceans has developed its own
unique and diverse microbial ecosystem, researchers report. The
microscopic community, which scientists dubbed the "plastisphere,"
includes more than 1,000 species of algae, bacteria, microscopic plants,
symbiotic microbes, and possibly even pathogens, the researchers say in
Environmental Science & Technology.
Some of the plastisphere microbes, many of which had never before been
documented, contain genes that could help break down hydrocarbons,
indicating the microbes may play a role in degrading the debris, the
research shows. Plastic trash is the most abundant type of debris in the
ocean, inflicting harm on fish, birds, and marine mammals that are
entangled by it or ingest it.
Until now, researchers hadn't looked at
microbes living on the debris, which make up a sort of artificial
"microbial reef," one of the scientists said.
The organisms on the plastic debris were different from the microbial
communities living on driftwood, feathers, and other natural items
floating in the ocean, and also different from the assemblage of
microbes living in open water, the researchers report.