July 18, 2013

A New Ecosystem: The Plastisphere

Made to last forever, but ironically made to be disposed of, plastic is the most copious form of marine pollution. Scientists who have examined the life of microbes and bacteria that make their home among the scores of plastic floating in the open ocean have now given this “habitat” a name—the Plastisphere. 

The dangerous impact of plastics has been long documented as the pound for pound increase of plastic pollution has shown itself in the ocean over the last five decades. However, up until now, little was known about the miniscule passengers of the plastics floating in the sea. Described to be “hundreds of kilometers across, with a density of over 200,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer,” the North Atlantic garbage patch hosts a number of tiny inhabitants.

Scientists found pitting on some of the plastics which has led them to believe that some of the bacterium are actually consuming the debris. However, the impact of the unnatural diet is not yet understood.  Perhaps even more alarming was the presence of bacteria that can cause potentially life-threatening illnesses in invertebrates, fish and humans. The microbes from the genus Vibrio can cause gastroenteritis, an inflammation of intestinal lining that presents unpleasant flu-like symptoms. Septicemia, a toxic blood infection, can also occur if the bacteria enters open wounds.

The impact of the so-called Plastisphere is an evolving story for researchers and it is now being understood at the smallest levels. An estimated 90 percent of garbage in the ocean is plastic products, with 80 percent of that coming from shores. Food packaging and plastic bags make up the bulk of the miles-long garbage patch. 

Promoting alternative, bio-degradable packaging and adamantly protecting the shores are two ways we can win in the battle against pervasive plastics. Do we really want to live in the Plastisphere?

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