Bugs can help rid oceans of plastic pollution
Coastal microbes may offer a smart solution to clean up plastic contamination, said Jesse Harrison, from the University of Sheffield in Britain, part of the team that conducted the study.
"Plastics form a daily part of our lives and are treated as disposable by consumers. As such plastics comprise the most abundant and rapidly growing component of man-made litter entering the oceans," added Harrison.
Plastic waste is a long-term problem as its breakdown in the environment may require thousands of years.
While microbes are the most numerous organisms in the marine environment, this is the first DNA-based study to investigate how they interact with plastic fragments.
The new study investigated the attachment of microbes to fragments of polyethylene - a plastic commonly used for shopping bags.
Scientists found that the plastic was rapidly colonised by multiple species of bacteria that congregated together to form a 'biofilm' on its surface. Interestingly, the biofilm was only formed by certain types of marine bacteria.
The group, led by Mark Osborn at Sheffield, plans to investigate how the microbial interaction with microplastics varies across different habitats within the coastal seabed - research which they believe could have huge environmental benefits.
"Microbes play a key role in sustaining all marine life and are the most likely of all organisms to break down toxic chemicals, or even the plastics themselves," suggested Harrison.
"This kind of research is also helping us unravel the global environmental impacts of plastic pollution," he said.
The research was presented at the Society for General Microbiology in Edinburgh.