If you are still under the idea that the debris in the garbage patches around the sea are devoid of life, it’s time to think otherwise. Scientists have recently found a bacteria species that feeds on plastic garbage dumped into the sea. Tracy Mincer, a marine microbiologist in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and his colleagues scanned plastic bits collected from the Sargasso Sea, a gyre region in the North Atlantic Ocean. Electron microscopy of synthetic scraps like plastic pellets, plastic bags and shards of fishing line showed the existence of bacterium cells that appeared to be living and gorging on the plastic surface. But there’s also a concern attached with this discovery- the researchers are yet to find out how plastic toxins like phthalates, marine organic pollutants and other additional poisonous chemicals would act on the microscopic animals preying on these marine bugs.
The Canary Current and the North Atlantic Equatorial Current carries huge loads of debris comprising 1,100 tones of synthetic. “You see this melting bit all around the outside of the cells, and they’re just burrowing into the plastic,” said Mincer who also added that they look like ‘hot barbecue briquette’ thrown into the snow. The ocean and wind currents are in a constant process of shoving ashore plastic remains from the seas; as a consequence bacterial activity cannot be avoided from any part of the world. Mincer reported, “we are seeing the plastic particles as a type of artificial reef that certain types of microbes can colonize. Since plastic has a much longer residence time in the water column than any other natural particle in the water column, this could be making a significant impact.”
A genetic study of these primitive organisms revealed that their characteristics are different from those living in the seaweed or seawater nearby. The DNA structures collected from the lab of Linda Amaral-Zettler, a microbiologist in the Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Hole indicated that almost 25% of the microorganisms living on a plastic surface were vibrios, a variant belonging to the cholera bacterium group. Furthermore, Mincer and Amaral-Zettler also found out traces of cells called eukaryotes which are more complex than the marine microbes. She believed that the “plastisphere” might be housing an entirely different, unknown and perhaps a more complicated microscopic biotic community that may or may not be a boon we are hoping for. However, their activities could act as a source directing us to the answers to various other unsolved questions about the oceanic environment. In spite of uncontrolled marine pollution the amount of rubbles have been largely reduced which the microbiologists consider a development probably contributed by the plastic eaters.
Since scientists are unsure of the nature and effect of the byproduct released by the microbes, it is still not confirmed whether these organisms are genuinely environment-friendly or not. In fact, the researchers are yet to find out if at all the byproducts enter the food chain. The biological activity of the bacteria could act more like a possible threat to the oceanic life than a pollution-reducing solution. “To understand if it’s a good thing or not, we have to understand the entire system,” concluded Mincer. However, there’s also an upside to this discovery; it has credibly highlighted the fact that in reality, the vast garbage dumps surrounding the oceans of the world are dens of diverse types of life forms and not at all lifeless as believed to be until now.
Though plastic digesting microbes were previously detected in landfills, the existence of plastic ingesting species in the sea is by far the most startling discovery in recent times! University College Dublin, Ireland ecologist Mark Browne who was not a part of this project commented, “whether or not that material then passes up the food chain is something of critical importance.” The disintegrated toxic chemicals from a plastic compound could get injected into the cells of other microscopic lives and release the toxins. But since it’s all still a mystery that awaits a legitimate explanation, we as responsible global citizens can meanwhile invite a change by preventing plastic dumps in and around the seas. The lesser the garbage the lower the munching and this way we can try preventing the toxins from reaching the marine life.