Marine microbes beat plastic pollution

Marine life could be protected from the lethal effects of plastic pollution, according to new research that has hailed coastal microbes as a potential clean-up solution.

In the first DNA-based study to investigate how microbes interact with plastic waste on the seabed, researchers from Sheffield University and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), revealed that small fragments of polyethylene – a polymer commonly used for shopping bags – was rapidly colonised by certain species of bacteria.

What is most interesting to the researchers is the way the bacteria congregated together to form a biofilm on the plastic surface. The team said that this could mean that marine bacteria have the potential to degrade plastics or plastic-associated pollutants.

Many scientists have raised concerns about plastic waste, as its breakdown in the environment can take thousands of years. Over time, the size of plastic fragments in the sea decreases as a result of exposure to natural forces. Tiny ’microplastics’ of 5mm or less are particularly dangerous as they can absorb toxic chemicals that are transported to marine animals when ingested.

Research leader Mark Osborn, a senior lecturer in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at Sheffield University, stated that 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year, with significant proportions reaching the marine environment. If marine microbes were deployed in areas of the sea littered with plastic waste, he continued, there is potential that these pollutants could be quickly degraded.

Osborn and his group now plans to investigate how the microbial interaction with microplastics varies across different habitats within the coastal-seabed research, which the team believes could have huge environmental benefits.