‘Plastisphere’ — Changing an ecological community

A dense flotilla of plastic trash rides on the ocean tide around the barrier islands off of  Belize. [Photo Laurie Penland. Smithsonian] - click to see Laurie's video of the dive through this trash float.

Smithsonian Dive Officer Laurie Penland shot video of her scuba dive through this dense flotilla of plastic trash riding on the ocean tides around the barrier islands off of Belize. Click the photo to watch her video.  PHOTO: Courtesy of Laurie Penland / Smithsonian

Thousands of miles from land, human beings have created a whole new ecosystem made of plastic. It’s called the plastisphere, and it’s where old plastic stuff goes to die. Or, more accurately, it’s where old plastic stuff goes to live on for a long, long time.

From grocery bags to picnic forks and parts of old toys, plastic has become the number one form of debris in the oceans. In fact, according to NOAA, 1.4 billion pounds of trash end up in the water every year. A lot of it gets swept by currents into large garbage patches way out in the middle of the ocean. These patches are creating a whole new ecosystem that’s never existed before.

People have known for a long time that our garbage is dangerous to marine life. Plastic looks incredibly yummy to some marine animals. Plastic bags for example look just like jellyfish–the favorite food for sea turtles. Colorful bottle caps are irresistible to some fish and marine birds. These things choke the animals and clog their digestive systems. Old netting and plastic ropes can trap even the largest fish, or entangle them so they can’t swim.

But not everything is harmed by the plastic. In fact, it’s the perfect home for certain bacteria. So now there are large rafts of bacteria floating around where they never existed before. They form the base of a whole new ecosystem. Scientists don’t yet know the impact the plastisphere will have on the ocean environment, but some of the microbes living there may be dangerous. Vibrio, for example, is just one type of bacteria that seems to love these floating ocean garbage patches, and certain kinds of vibrio cause cholera, a disease that can be deadly to humans.

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The scientists who discovered these new microbial ecosystems and named them the plastisphere are Erik Zettler of the Sea Education Association, Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Linda Amaral-Zettler of the Marine Biological Laboratory. They published a paper about their work in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.