New Study: New Worries About Marine Debris

Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Blog, Coastal Debris | 1 comment

microbe-plastisphereIt’s well known that marine debris is an ongoing  global environmental disaster, in no small part due to the ability of floating debris to transport invasive species long distances. A new study shows that the biggest worries may come from the smallest debris.

A study, entitled “Life in the ‘Plastisphere’: Microbial Communities on Plastic Marine Debris,” was just published in the journal, Environmental Science and Technology, describing the surprisingly rich mini-ecosystem of microbes that can accumulate and travel on very tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean.

The researchers say “We unveiled a diverse microbial community of heterotrophs, autotrophs, predators, and symbionts, a community we refer to as the ‘Plastisphere.’ … Plastisphere communities are distinct from surrounding surface water, implying that plastic serves as a novel ecological habitat in the open ocean.”

Or, as the L.A. Times describes it in slightly more understandable terms:

These unique menageries, which arose on plastic debris introduced to the world’s ocean over the last six decades, make up extensive food chains of bacteria and single-celled animals that produce their own food, bacteria that feed on their waste products and predators that feed on all of them.


Of particular concern was a sample of polypropylene — about the size of the head of a pin — dominated by members of the genus vibrio, which includes bacteria that cause cholera and gastrointestinal ailments.


Since plastic debris persists far longer than biodegradable flotsam such as feathers and wood, dangerous pathogens could travel long distances by attaching themselves to plastic rafts of debris tinier than salt grains.

Yes, in a nightmarish marine version of Horton Hears A Who, these tiny specs of plastic debris can carry entire communities of nasty microbes very long distances.  An invasive is an invasive, no matter how small.

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