Scientists Discover Marine Microorganisms That Munch on Plastic

By: Kyle Farquharson - Published: Mar 30, 2011 • References: nature and treehugger
Microorganisms that feast on plastic are the latest discovery by biologists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. What remains to be seen is whether the news is cause for celebration or concern.

Viewed through an electron microscope, each microscopic scrap of plastic is "a reef of biological activity," says Dr. Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole team. In fact, the polyethylene particles appear to provide the basis for a minuscule ecosystem, which scientists have termed the "plastisphere."

Plastic abounds in oceans around the planet, notably in the North Pacific Ocean, and the North Atlantic's Sargasso Sea, where confluent currents have gathered enormous patches of detritus. It does eventually break down in open water. The problem is, rather than degrading in a healthy way, the hydrocarbon tends to sheer into smaller pieces -- a concern for sea turtles and numerous other forms of marine life.

Next, researchers at Woods Hole aim to find out whether the plastic-eating bacteria are digesting (and perhaps de-toxifying) the debris, or introducing contaminants into the food chain through the consumption process.