Pathogenic bacteria are residing in the masses of plastic debris that float over large areas of the world's oceans. Scientists have named this ecological hazard the "Plastisphere."
The North Atlantic Ocean has several areas streaming with plastic junk, the waste products of modern life. So extensive is plastic waste that plastic has become the main form of ocean debris, causing serious concerns about its impact on the health of ocean communities. More worryingly, plastic debris has now reached the Southern Ocean, an area thought to be relatively free from industrial and consumer waste.
The extent of the plastic waste has lead to damaging effects on fish, birds and other seafaring animals. The waste is also leading to new microbial communities. A research report has revealed that tiny organisms from algae to bacteria thrive on plastic debris, transforming the bobbing plastic containers into rich "microbial reefs" that are distinct from communities in surrounding water. The hard surfaces of plastic debris is providing an attractive and alternative substrate for a number of organisms. Therefore plastic serves as a novel ecological habitat in the open ocean.
One concern from this is that many of the bacteria thriving in their new habitat are pathogens. On this basis alone, plastic debris might pose a health risk for invertebrates, fish or possibly humans. Notably, the plastisphere harbors a group of bacteria called Vibrio. Some Vibrio species can cause illnesses, such as cholera, when they come in contact with humans. Most disease-causing strains are associated with gastroenteritis, but can also infect open wounds and cause septicemia.
The report has been written up in the journal ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology. The paper is called "Microbial Communities on Plastic Marine Debris."
In response to the impact of plastic waste on the world's seas, a campaign group called 'Plastic Oceans' has been formed,