Marine Pollution: the benefits of plastic in the sea

Beach at Msasani Bay,  Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. image from wikipedia

The malign effect of floating plastic debris on seabirds, turtles and other sea creatures is well known. But, as Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler have discovered, plastic debris also provides a new habitat for organisms small enough to take advantage of it.  The two researchers collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, and also an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Lots of things were. Altogether, they discovered about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal and bacterial life. Each bit of debris was, in effect, a tiny ecosystem.…Plastics are energy-rich substances, which is why many of them burn so readily. Any organism that could unlock and use that energy would do well….Less encouragingly, Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler also found cholera-like bacteria in their tiny floating ecosystems. Both fish and seabirds act as vectors for cholera (the former bring it into human settlements when caught by fishermen, the latter when resting ashore or nesting), so anywhere that such creatures might pick up cholera bugs is something worth keeping an eye on.

The researchers paint an intriguing picture of the adaptability of nature, and provide another piece of the jigsaw that is the Anthropocene. Conservationists intent on preserving charismatic megafauna have reason to lament the spread of plastics through the ocean. But those interested in smaller critters have been given a whole, new sphere—the plastisphere—to study.

Marine ecology: Welcome to the plastisphere, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 7

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