Magazine article Oceanus

Behold the 'Plastisphere': Colonies of Microbes Flourish on Tiny Bits in the Ocean

Magazine article Oceanus

Behold the 'Plastisphere': Colonies of Microbes Flourish on Tiny Bits in the Ocean

Article excerpt

Scientists have discovered a diverse multitude of microbes colonizing and thriving on flecks of plastic that have polluted the oceans--a vast new human-made flotilla of microbial communities that they have dubbed the "plastisphere."

In a study published July 2013 in Environmental Science & Technology, a team of scientists says the plastisphere represents a novel ecological habitat in the ocean and raises a host of questions: How will it change environmental conditions for marine microbes? Will it favor some over their competitors? How will it change the overall ocean ecosystem and affect larger organisms? How will it change where microbes, including pathogens, will be transported in the ocean?

The team--Erik Zettler from Sea Education Association (SEA), Tracy Mincer from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Linda Amaral-Zettler from the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), all in Woods Hole, Mass.--analyzed millimeter-size fragments of plastic debris that were skimmed with fine-scale nets from the sea surface at several locations in the North Atlantic Ocean. "[hey were collected and processed by students participating in SEA research cruises.

"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," Amaral-Zettler said. "Are they sinking to the bottom of the ocean? Are they being ingested by other organisms? If they're being ingested, what impact does that have?"

Using scanning electron microscopy and gene sequencing techniques, they found at least 1,000 different types of bacterial cells on the plastic samples, including many species yet to be identified. The colonies included plants, algae, and bacteria that manufacture their own food (autotrophs), animals and bacteria that feed on them (heterotrophs), predators that feed on these, and other organisms that establish symbiotic relationships. …

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