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COMMENTARY: Plastisphere reveals impact of trash

by Scripps Howard News Service on July 16, 2013 10:20 AM

If there’s any doubt that the human footprint can be found on most any corner of the planet, marine scientists have recently given us another slimy example of how easily we can muck things up.

It’s called the plastisphere. The term refers to an ecological niche made up of microbes that have attached themselves to floating artificial reefs made up of our discarded drink bottles, shopping bags, storage bins and fast food toys.

There are hundreds of millions of tons of this plastic habitat spread across the seas, largely in giant mats loosely corralled by the loops of ocean currents — as many as 26 million separate chunks of plastic in just over half a square mile. Scientists have long known these garbage zones can be harmful to fish, sea turtles, birds and marine mammals.

But researchers from several institutions based at Woods Hole, Mass., analyzed samples skimmed from several locations during Sea Education cruises last year and used microscopes and gene sequencing to find more than 1,000 different types of bacteria cells on the plastic.

There were plants, algae, bacteria that can produce its own food, and predators and more predators — all very different from the microscopic life found in surrounding sea water.

The scientists also report finding pits and cracks in some plastics that suggest the microbes may be helping to break the stuff down, at least into smaller pieces, but no sign any of the critters actually digest any of the trash.

But they also found that the plastic rafts could harbor algae and pathogens that could harm the health of humans and marine life should they get close to shore.

One sample was dominated by the genus Vibrio, which includes bacteria that can cause cholera, wound infections and intestinal illness.

And once again confirming an adage of the anthropic era — garbage in, garbage out.

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