Environmental safety: Microbial answer to plastic pollution

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 @ 10:04 PM gHale


Safety is not just on the plant floor, it also exists in the environment. So, it is easy to understand why fragments of plastic found in the ocean are potentially lethal to marine life.

But coastal microbes may offer a smart solution to clean up plastic contamination, said Jesse Harrison, a researcher at the University of Sheffield and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.

The combination of marine microbes that can grow on plastic waste varies significantly from microbial groups that colonize surfaces in the wider environment, Harrison said. This raises the possibility that plastic-associated marine microbes have different activities that could contribute to the breakdown of these plastics or the toxic chemicals 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,” Harrison said.

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 “microplastics” and are particularly dangerous as they can absorb toxic chemicals which transport to marine animals 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 polyethylene, a plastic commonly used for shopping bags. The scientists found multiple species of bacteria congregated to form a “biofilm” on the surface of the plastic. Only certain types of marine bacteria formed the biofilm.

The Sheffield group 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,” Harrison said. “This kind of research is also helping us unravel the global environmental impacts of plastic pollution.”



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