Uncovering the World of the Plastisphere

Journal of College Science Teaching, May-June 2014 | Go to article overview

Uncovering the World of the Plastisphere


New research delves deeper into the role microbial communities living on plastic marine debris play in the ocean ecosystem. Scientists are revealing how microbes living on floating pieces of plastic marine debris affect the ocean ecosystem and the potential harm they pose to invertebrates, humans, and other animals. New research also focuses on the largely unexplored world of the "Plastisphere,"--an ecological community of microbial organisms living on ocean plastic first discovered last year.

When scientists initially studied the Plastisphere, they found that at least 1,000 different types of microbes thrive on these tiny plastic islands and that the debris might pose a risk to larger animals, including invertebrates and humans. The original studies also showed that the Plastisphere's inhabitants included bacteria known to cause diseases in animals and humans.

Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out why these potentially dangerous bacteria live on the Plastisphere, how they got there, and how they are affecting the surrounding ocean.

New evidence suggests that "super-colonizers" form detectable clusters on the plastic in minutes. Other findings indicate that some types of harmful bacteria favor plastics more than others. And, scientists are exploring if fish or other ocean animals may be helping these pathogens thrive by ingesting the plastic. That could allow bacteria to acquire additional nutrients as they pass through the guts of the fish, according to Tracy Mincer, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Revealing this information could help scientists better understand how much of a potential threat these harmful bacteria pose and the role the Plastisphere plays in the larger ocean ecosystem, including its potential to alter nutrients in the water. …

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