Discovery of the 'Plastisphere': A new marine ecological community

Jul 10, 2013
Discovery of the 'Plastisphere': A new marine ecological community

The masses of plastic debris that float over large areas of the world's oceans have become new ecological communities that scientists have named the "Plastisphere." Their report in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology suggests that these novel habitats in the North Atlantic Ocean may harbor potential disease-causing microbes.

Erik Zettler of the Sea Education Association, Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Linda Amaral-Zettler of the Marine Biological Laboratory explain that plastic has become the No. 1 form of debris, causing serious concerns about its impact on the health of ocean communities. The damaging effects that plastic in the oceans have on fish, birds and other seafaring animals have previously been described in detail by other researchers. But scientists had yet to explore what plastic does to some of the smallest ocean inhabitants. Zettler, Mincer and Amaral-Zettler decided to find out.

They discovered that tiny organisms from algae to bacteria thrive on , transforming it into rich "microbial reefs" that are distinct from communities in surrounding water. Though some inhabitants may be degrading the plastic, it still provides a relatively stable home for microbes. Apparently a good home for its little residents, plastic debris might pose a health risk for invertebrates, fish or possibly humans. The Plastisphere harbors a group of bacteria called Vibrio. Some Vibrio species can cause illnesses, such as cholera, when they come in contact with humans.

Explore further: Coastal defences could contribute to flooding with sea-level rise

More information: "Life in the 'Plastisphere': Microbial Communities on Plastic Marine Debris" Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (13), pp 7137–7146. DOI: 10.1021/es401288x

Abstract
Plastics are the most abundant form of marine debris, with global production rising and documented impacts in some marine environments, but the influence of plastic on open ocean ecosystems is poorly understood, particularly for microbial communities. Plastic marine debris (PMD) collected at multiple locations in the North Atlantic was analyzed with scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and next-generation sequencing to characterize the attached microbial communities. We unveiled a diverse microbial community of heterotrophs, autotrophs, predators, and symbionts, a community we refer to as the "Plastisphere". Pits visualized in the PMD surface conformed to bacterial shapes suggesting active hydrolysis of the hydrocarbon polymer. Small-subunit rRNA gene surveys identified several hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria, supporting the possibility that microbes play a role in degrading PMD. Some Plastisphere members may be opportunistic pathogens (the authors, unpublished data) such as specific members of the genus Vibrio that dominated one of our plastic samples. Plastisphere communities are distinct from surrounding surface water, implying that plastic serves as a novel ecological habitat in the open ocean. Plastic has a longer half-life than most natural floating marine substrates, and a hydrophobic surface that promotes microbial colonization and biofilm formation, differing from autochthonous substrates in the upper layers of the ocean.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Polluting plastic particles invade the Great Lakes

Apr 09, 2013

Floating plastic debris—which helps populate the infamous "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" in the Pacific Ocean—has become a problem in the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Scientists reported on ...

Recommended for you

Tracking giant kelp from space

13 hours ago

Citizen scientists worldwide are invited to take part in marine ecology research, and they won't have to get their feet wet to do it. The Floating Forests project, an initiative spearheaded by scientists ...

Heavy metals and hydroelectricity

14 hours ago

Hydraulic engineering is increasingly relied on for hydroelectricity generation. However, redirecting stream flow can yield unintended consequences. In the August 2014 issue of GSA Today, Donald Rodbell of ...

What's wiping out the Caribbean corals?

15 hours ago

Here's what we know about white-band disease: It has already killed up to 95 percent of the Caribbean's reef-building elkhorn and staghorn corals, and it's caused by an infectious bacteria that seems to be ...

User comments : 0