Microbial plastic degradation in the deep sea

Scanning electron micrograph of microbes attached to plastic debris in the ocean. The biofilm on small plastic particles was termed “plastisphere” by researchers at MBL (Photo: L. Amaral-Zettler).

Since 1950 the global production of plastics has grown exponentially and pollution has become a great concern because of the relatively high quantities of plastics found across aquatic ecosystems. About 5-13 million tons of plastics entered the ocean in 2010 alone, however, the fate of 90% or more of the plastics entering the ocean is currently unknown. In this project, we combine microbiological, chemical, and biogeochemical methods to find out whether different kinds of plastic are degraded in the deep water column of the Sargasso Sea using the infrastructure of the Oceanic Flux Program. It is important to understand the involvement of microbes in this process as well as elucidate the timescales that are needed to break down these artificial substances. Knowledge of the role of deep ocean microbial communities in the transformation and degradation of synthetic plastic polymers will be critical information for industry and policymakers. The project is in collaboration with Rut Pedrosa Pamies at MBL, the labs of Maureen Conte, Alexander Bochdansky, Zhanfei Lui and Scott Gallager and is funded by the NSF EAGER program.

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