Microbial answer to plastic pollution?

Mar 28, 2010
These are microbes from the coastal seabed attached to plastic, as seen through a microscope. Credit: Jesse Harrison

Fragments of plastic in the ocean are not just unsightly but potentially lethal to marine life. Coastal microbes may offer a smart solution to clean up plastic contamination, according to Jesse Harrison presenting his research at the Society for General Microbiology's spring meeting in Edinburgh today.

The researchers from the University of Sheffield and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science have shown that the combination of marine microbes that can grow on plastic waste varies significantly from microbial groups that colonise surfaces in the wider environment. This raises the possibility that the plastic-associated marine microbes have different activities that could contribute to the breakdown of these plastics or the associated with them.

Plastic waste is a long-term problem as its breakdown in the environment may require thousands of years. "Plastics form a daily part of our lives and are treated as disposable by consumers. As such plastics comprise the most abundant and rapidly growing component of man-made litter entering the oceans," explained Jesse Harrison.

Over time the size of plastic fragments in the oceans decreases as a result of exposure to natural forces. Tiny fragments of 5 mm or less are called "microplastics" and are particularly dangerous as they can absorb toxic chemicals which are transported to when ingested.

While microbes are the most numerous organisms in the marine environment, this is the first DNA-based study to investigate how they interact with plastic fragments. The new study investigated the attachment of microbes to fragments of - a plastic commonly used for shopping bags. The scientists found that the plastic was rapidly colonised by multiple species of bacteria that congregated together to form a 'biofilm' on its surface. Interestingly, the was only formed by certain types of marine bacteria.

The group, led by Dr. Mark Osborn at Sheffield, plans to investigate how the microbial interaction with microplastics varies across different habitats within the coastal seabed - research which they believe could have huge environmental benefits. "Microbes play a key role in the sustaining of all marine life and are the most likely of all organisms to break down toxic chemicals, or even the plastics themselves," suggested Mr Harrison. "This kind of research is also helping us unravel the global environmental impacts of pollution," he said.

Explore further: Hot-spring bacteria reveal ability to use far-red light for photosynthesis

More information: Jesse Harrison’s poster ‘The formation and structure of microbial biofilms associated with synthetic microplastics in coastal sediments’ will be displayed on Monday 29 and Tuesday 30 March at the Society for General Microbiology’s spring meeting at Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

Provided by Society for General Microbiology

4 /5 (10 votes)

Related Stories

Microbes convert 'Styrofoam' into biodegradable plastic

Feb 23, 2006

Bacteria could help transform a key component of disposable cups, plates and utensils into a useful eco-friendly plastic, significantly reducing the environmental impact of this ubiquitous, but difficult-to-recycle waste ...

Plastic bags killing Queensland’s turtles

Mar 13, 2008

A group of University of Queensland researchers are urging Queenslanders to avoid littering the state's marine environment during the upcoming Easter holiday weekend.

Recommended for you

Some anti-inflammatory drugs affect more than their targets

14 hours ago

Researchers have discovered that three commonly used nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, alter the activity of enzymes within cell membranes. Their finding suggests that, if taken at higher-than-approved ...

Researchers discover new strategy germs use to invade cells

Aug 20, 2014

The hospital germ Pseudomonas aeruginosa wraps itself into the membrane of human cells: A team led by Dr. Thorsten Eierhoff and Junior Professor Dr. Winfried Römer from the Institute of Biology II, members of the Cluster ...

Progress in the fight against harmful fungi

Aug 20, 2014

A group of researchers at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories has created one of the three world's largest gene libraries for the Candida glabrata yeast, which is harmful to humans. Molecular analysis of the Candida ...

How steroid hormones enable plants to grow

Aug 19, 2014

Plants can adapt extremely quickly to changes in their environment. Hormones, chemical messengers that are activated in direct response to light and temperature stimuli help them achieve this. Plant steroid ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Caliban
3 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2010
This could have huge implications- and hopefully will lead to at least a partial solution to the ubiquitous problem of marine pollution by plastics. Perhaps may even lead to a way to efficiently dispose of plastic waste, and possibly its conversion to useful byproducts.