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Science

Ocean Plastics Host Surprising Microbial Array 117

Posted by samzenpus
from the life-will-find-a-way dept.
MTorrice writes "A surprising suite of microbial species colonizes plastic waste floating in the ocean, according to a new study. The bacteria appeared to burrow pits into the plastic. One possible explanation is that bacteria eat into the polymers, weakening the pieces enough to cause them to break down more quickly and eventually sink to the sea floor. While the microbes could speed the plastic's decay, they might also cause their own ecological problems, the researchers say."
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Ocean Plastics Host Surprising Microbial Array

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  • The Earth wants plastic!

  • by fustakrakich (1673220) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:14PM (#44033233) Journal

    As does every living thing.

    I always look at the bright side of these things. If we didn't have cars, we would be knee deep in horse crap.

    • by macraig (621737)

      If we didn't have cars, we would be knee deep in horse crap.

      Being serious for a moment... no, we wouldn't. And that would be a good thing in spite of its effect on public health, insect control, and having to constantly clean it all up. There would only be localized agriculture, much lower crop yields, no processed and junk food, drastically lower human population, less opportunities for concentration of wealth... you get the picture I expect.

      • by beernutz (16190)

        No Internet, highways, phone system, cell phones, worse healthcare etc..

        Yeah, much better. 8(

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Being serious for a moment... no, we wouldn't. And that would be a good thing [...] There would only be localized agriculture, much lower crop yields [...]

        Yeah, all those assholes out in Arizona and Nevada deserve to starve to death without any local agriculture to speak of, because fuck them, I live in the farmable lands of the midwest, that's why! And don't you dare think you're getting any excess crops from me, jerk! I grow precisely as much as I and the very VERY select few people I care about need, because they're MINE! GIMME GIMME GIMME! MINE!

        If you desert dipshits wanted any "human compassion" or this "empathy" bullshit, you should live out HERE!

        • Still is a good thing. Desert cultures have survived quite well without agriculture. We don't all need the GMO grain that you grow on your pesticide-laced impoverished soil to survive. It would definitely be a good thing if only the population which was sustainable in a natural non-petroleum boosted manner existed.
          How mega-dense could a population become if they were spread out as needed to have enough growing area for food for themselves? I imagine it would be somewhere in the vicinity of about five pe

      • Exactly, we would never be knee-deep in horse crap. That is, if we never had synthetic nitrogen, the population of the planet couldn't be sustained on animal dung for crop needs only, period. [slate.com]

        • not the current unnaturally high one, you're right. We'd be holding steady at way lower than current population levels and the earth wouldn't be in the shit shape it's in now.

      • by Richy_T (111409)

        Yeah. When everyone is dirt poor and dying of a few dozen currently solved affliction, there will be much less opportunity for concentration of wealth. But you'll still be hating the dude who has shoes while you're coughing blood all over your bare feet.

      • ...you get the picture I expect.

        Yeah, life in those days sucked.. I mean really.. Ping time was measured in months, sometimes over a year.

      • by Enigma2175 (179646) on Monday June 17, 2013 @08:31PM (#44035275) Homepage Journal

        If we didn't have cars, we would be knee deep in horse crap.

        Being serious for a moment... no, we wouldn't. And that would be a good thing in spite of its effect on public health, insect control, and having to constantly clean it all up. There would only be localized agriculture, much lower crop yields, no processed and junk food, drastically lower human population, less opportunities for concentration of wealth... you get the picture I expect.

        You realize there were cities before there were cars, right? And in those cities, there was a LARGE manure problem? According to this page [nofrakkingconsensus.com] it was 3,000,000 pounds PER DAY in New York City. FTA:

        "even when it had been removed from the streets the manure piled up faster than it could be disposed ofearly in the century farmers were happy to pay good money for the manure, by the end of the 1800s stable owners had to pay to have it carted off. As a result of this glutvacant lots in cities across America became piled high with manure; in New York these sometimes rose to forty and even sixty feet"

        Yeah, sounds like a real utopia!

        • We have genetic engineering now. We could make larger more efficient horses with crap that smells like roses and glows in the dark to eliminate the need for streetlights and fertilizer. Instead of the flying car, we would be pining over Pegasus.

          ...
          If they think Bird crap is bad, wait 'till they get a load of this!

      • by citizenr (871508)

        So what you are saying is we would all be Amish.

  • by afidel (530433) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:15PM (#44033239)

    I bet they're either pseudomonas putida or a closely related pseudomonas, these are the bacteria that have been used to aid in the cleanup of oil spills and which naturally occur in the ocean bottom where petroleum oozes out of natural cracks in the cap containing them.

    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:31PM (#44033363)
      The only specific microbes mentioned in the abstract is the genus vibrio. The vast majority of microbes are uncharacterized, which is not surprising given the sheer number of branches in archea and eubacteria. Bacteria, for example, it's estimated that there are 10 million to a billion species [wisegeek.org]. It would be surprising, to say the least, if there is only one microbe out there that eats petroleum or it's byproducts.
      • A billion species? Think how many of them must be endangered. Stop everything, think of the endangered microbes.

        You there, reading /. How do you know there isn't a unique endangered microbe living on that acreage of ass you were about to scratch? Stop it, no washing ether.

        • Think how many of them must be endangered. Stop everything, think of the endangered microbes.

          That doesn't make much sense. 1) Bacteria don't need to find sexual partners, which is one of the problems with endangered large animaks. They just divide in good conditions, and they're very good at that, so any potential conservation effort is as simple as keeping a culture. 2) They mutate very quickly, so the "species" stuff is much more fuzzy with them.

  • by cfulton (543949) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:15PM (#44033241)
    I'm always confounded when evolution does what it is predicted to do and we are all surprised by it. That waste can be used as food. Something will find a way to eat it. Evolution will fill available niches. That is the point to some extent of evolution. Why are we surprised that microbes are eating plastic? Why are we surprised that they then cause follow on effects? Seems obvious to me that it would happen given that it is in line with theory.

    I would also comment that we need to find a different way of expressing changes in ecology. It seems that any change to the ecological status quo is regarded as a problem or disaster. We know from the historical record that nothing in nature stays in a steady state. We know that changes in ecology are often boom bust cycles that eventually find an equilibrium from which it will, over time, move away from into a new boom bust cycle. "Punctuated Equilibrium" - nice name for it.
    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:27PM (#44033335) Journal

      Given how late to the game plastics are, it is fairly impressive how fast they've moved. Some modified natural polymers go a fair way back; but most of the synthetics that we think of as 'plastics' are under a century old, are reasonably novel(not just a synthesis technique that is cheaper than the organic method for producing an existing material), and are often selected, at least in part, for good resistance to decay.

      Also, polymers can be pretty tough molecules to crack: even something like cellulose, which is literally older than (some) dirt, is attacked primarily by a relatively small group of specialist organisms.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Despite the hype, plastics are still very chemically similar to the organic compounds they are made from. There are a few lab-produced chemicals that are truly foreign to the biosphere, but plastics are much more familiar to the ecology than we were told each Earth Day.

        The main argument for plastic alienation is that the dominant oil-eating organisms are deep ocean dwellers and all the testing was done in standard landfill conditions with the sorts of fungi and bacteria that thrive in anaerobic mud.

        • by omnichad (1198475) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:44PM (#44033499) Homepage

          Which means we really should be throwing our plastics in the ocean instead of a landfill? I guess recycling would suffice.

      • by Anne_Nonymous (313852) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:39PM (#44033435) Homepage Journal

        >> 'plastics' are under a century old

        Yes, but that's like a billion in microbe years.

      • Given how late to the game plastics are, it is fairly impressive how fast they've moved. Some modified natural polymers go a fair way back; but most of the synthetics that we think of as 'plastics' are under a century old, are reasonably novel(not just a synthesis technique that is cheaper than the organic method for producing an existing material), and are often selected, at least in part, for good resistance to decay.

        Also, polymers can be pretty tough molecules to crack: even something like cellulose, which is literally older than (some) dirt, is attacked primarily by a relatively small group of specialist organisms.

        Three years from now, they'll be demanding the right to vote.

      • by TheCarp (96830)

        > Given how late to the game plastics are, it is fairly impressive how fast
        > they've moved.

        Fast? Meh what is fast?

        A while back in discussion of life and how likely or unlikely it is to evolve, I thought about the size of the earth vs the size of a biological molecule or a cell.... you can think of the world, after a fashion, as a massively parallel lab, every square inch has so many particles and there are so many square inches, that can each have their own distribution of particles.... its massively

        • I'm hardly saying that it's impossible(after all, 'Nylonase' enzymes were identified in 1975, for a compound that had only existed for ~40 years. Just that it's impressive. If anybody is going to be metabolizing plastics, it'll be bacteria, through sheer numbers and rapid mutation; but evolving, with no assistance, to attack novel compounds, designed for resilience, in less than a century after their introduction is pretty good work...

      • You realize that we have had plastics for more than 4000 years? Yes, that is right, 4000. Sure the selection was limited and some of them took 3 years to cure, but we had them alright.
    • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:31PM (#44033361)

      I'm always confounded when evolution does what it is predicted to do and we are all surprised by it. That waste can be used as food. Something will find a way to eat it.

      That's not strictly accurate. Neither is the supposition "and eventually sink to the sea floor." There are two growing patches of plastic which has been ground down to the point where it is now a gloppy film-like consistency to much of it, and it has been bleached white from UV light, and although it's almost degraded to the molecular level... it's not sinking.

      Worse, it's killing everything in the area as animals try to turn it into food... which in turn thanks to the food chain, means other animals, who didn't eat it, become contaminated by it, and so on and so on. But at no point has there been much evidence of evolutionary adaptation to convert this plastic waste into an actual food product. Animals adapt to its presence... and maybe eventually won't die because it is infesting the environment... but anything much more complicated than an amoeba has shown zero ability to metabolize this.

      You can't trust evolution to clean up after you. :/ This argument is as specious as suggesting that we shouldn't worry about global warming because eventually a creature will be born that eats all of our waste for us and shits out rainbows.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        There are two growing patches of plastic [...] bleached white from UV light, and [...] not sinking.

        On the bright side, those white patches are reflecting solar radiation and reducing global warming...

      • by cfulton (543949)
        I was in no way condoning the degradation of the oceans with our waste. Neither was I arguing that we can trust evolution to clean up after us. I just get a little tired of the scientific media and even some evolutionary biologists who act surprised when things happen that are predicted by their science.
        • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday June 17, 2013 @05:21PM (#44033837)

          I just get a little tired of the scientific media and even some evolutionary biologists who act surprised when things happen that are predicted by their science.

          It's the difference between theory and observation, my dear. A scientist will always be excited when the two match. It's no different than the landing of the Mars rovers. Sure, we expected them to land... but we still broke out the champaign and celebrated when they did.

      • by Richy_T (111409)

        Large amounts of floating material in the ocean miles from land? Surely someone can find a way to turn a profit from that.

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          The problem is that the waste contains particles of a broad range of sizes. Scooping it up is non-trivial and then what do you do with it? The recycling process for arbitrary mixed plastics is barely energy-positive.

          • by Richy_T (111409)

            Maybe use cages to form it into a giant floating island. Then sell it to Larry Ellison.

            • by drinkypoo (153816)

              Maybe use cages to form it into a giant floating island. Then sell it to Larry Ellison.

              You'll also have to import a captive audience to get him interested.

      • You can't trust evolution to clean up after you

        Partly disagree. You can't trust evolution to clean up after you on a useful time scale. It will clean up after you eventually, even if incorporating plastic into a new paradigm (RIP Saint Carlin) is the means it uses to do this. You might not be around to see it happen, however, nor your hypothetical descendants.

      • I'm always confounded when evolution does what it is predicted to do and we are all surprised by it. That waste can be used as food. Something will find a way to eat it.

        That's not strictly accurate. Neither is the supposition "and eventually sink to the sea floor." There are two growing patches of plastic which has been ground down to the point where it is now a gloppy film-like consistency to much of it, and it has been bleached white from UV light, and although it's almost degraded to the molecular level... it's not sinking.

        Worse, it's killing everything in the area as animals try to turn it into food... which in turn thanks to the food chain, means other animals, who didn't eat it, become contaminated by it, and so on and so on. But at no point has there been much evidence of evolutionary adaptation to convert this plastic waste into an actual food product. Animals adapt to its presence... and maybe eventually won't die because it is infesting the environment... but anything much more complicated than an amoeba has shown zero ability to metabolize this.

        You can't trust evolution to clean up after you. :/ This argument is as specious as suggesting that we shouldn't worry about global warming because eventually a creature will be born that eats all of our waste for us and shits out rainbows.

        Well, we still have The Market. The Market cures everything, I'm told.

      • by khallow (566160)
        Heh, I think we can add your entire post to the "not strictly accurate" pile. The story which we're commenting on already shows your assertion false that plastics kill "everything in the area as animals try to turn it into food". Some animals are quite successful at turning plastics into food or into a surface for living on.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Tablizer (95088)

      But predicting the future path of evolution is like predicting the stock market. You can't plan around the schedule of mutations. Who knows if these plastic munching traits are a freak mutation caused by a single cosmic ray from Orion or something that has a predictable time-line.

    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:40PM (#44033443)
      The timescale is pretty short though. We're not talking about a natural food source that has been around forever, we're talking about something that has been around in mass quantities for, what, a century?

      We know that changes in ecology are often boom bust cycles that eventually find an equilibrium from which it will, over time, move away from into a new boom bust cycle. "Punctuated Equilibrium" - nice name for it.

      Punctuated Equalibrium, the theory, applies to evolution really, not ecology. And in one of his books at least, Gould points out it's really only talking about multicellular evolution. Bacteria don't do sex, they don't have "species" in the same sense that we do. "Species" often means something close to "organisms which can breed together." Asexual division obviously makes that not an issue. So bacteria aren't really constrained to punctated equalibrium.

      He also pointed out in that same chapter that since bacteria dramatically outnumber eukarya, anytime some creationist starts yapping about how macroevolution is "unproven" despite microevolution, you could point out that microevolution is really the big picture that they've granted, and macroevolution is just a small, trivial detail.

      • by cfulton (543949)
        Yes, but you don't need sex and I was in fact talking about evolution and ecology. Bacteria, are evolving to use and live on the plastic waste that we are dumping the the ocean. Changes in ecology create changes in survival pressure. New foods, loss of old foods, change in climate etc all change the pressures on living things including bacteria. And bacteria evolve. Maybe not through sexual means and so do not evolve as quickly in terms of generations, but they can evolve much more quickly than sexual
    • I think it is similar to the red tide problem. The algae that is causing the problem is naturally occurring however the amount of algae depletes all the available oxygen which causes concern for sea life in the gulf.
    • by manu0601 (2221348)

      I would also comment that we need to find a different way of expressing changes in ecology. It seems that any change to the ecological status quo is regarded as a problem or disaster. We know from the historical record that nothing in nature stays in a steady state.

      Sure, whatever harm we do to the ecosystem, the nature will prevail. The problem is just that a new environment may not allow human life at all.

      Change to the ecological status may indeed be a disaster for human life

  • Silver lining (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gmuslera (3436) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:24PM (#44033315) Homepage Journal

    If they can process plastics into something edible (work as CHON food [darwincentral.org] sintetizers) or that can be metabolized by the ocean ecosystem could be a way to get rid of the Great Pacific garbage patch [wikipedia.org] should be something pretty good.

    In the other hand, if those start to pour into our plastic and oil dependant civilization could be pretty damaging.

    • Excess nutrients are not always a good thing, those can cause an imbalance of flora and fauna because not all species can benefit equally or at all (and to some, are even toxic) from the new nutrients. This is exactly what happens in Xochimilco lake, south of Mexico City, where centuries of traditional agriculture and many endemic species were put in danger because of the excess nutrients that came from using the lake as a sewer which benefited a single species of algae to the detriment of almost all other
    • Don't know about other types of plastic but the nylon factory I worked at in the 80's routinely added antibiotics to the nylon to stop it from rotting.
  • Frankenbug (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tablizer (95088) on Monday June 17, 2013 @04:31PM (#44033359) Homepage Journal

    What happens if this bacteria grows really good at it and starts munching away at everyday items on land?

    You're at an interview or on a date and your polyester pants unexpectedly succumb to the hungry little buggers.

  • Credibility (Score:1, Insightful)

    by argStyopa (232550)

    "While the microbes could speed the plastic's decay, they might also cause their own ecological problems, the researchers say"

    And if anyone needed a reason that people don't take eco-nuts seriously, here it is.

    Here we have a nice sign that some crappy thing we're doing to the environment might be mitigated in some small way by Mother Nature, and the response is what? Not "great! let's spend time working on other problems!" it's "oh noes, we think there are just other problems we haven't discovered yet".

    Ju

    • Or, it might be that the researchers know that the next command from politicians and the general population will be "Unleash the plastic-eating microbes!", and they're trying to get ahead of the general mess that comes from it.

      • by DRJlaw (946416)

        Or, it might be that the researchers know that the next command from politicians and the general population will be "Unleash the plastic-eating microbes!", and they're trying to get ahead of the general mess that comes from it.

        The plastic-eating microbes are already unleased. This isn't a test of a new GMO strain, this is a discovery that some naturally occuring organism as colonized floating plastic detritus -- the same sort of plastic detritus that arriving on the US west coast from the March 2011 tsunam

  • We've seen this in marine aquariums for decades. This causes an increase in the available surface area for colonization which is very useful for water quality maintenance since many of the bacteria that colonize these surfaces are beneficial, breaking down things like ammonia and such that can be poisonous. This has been used by public aquariums, hobbyists and even the basis of commercial products for decades. Very useful.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Well no. Bio-wheels and their ancestors are made of plastic, but that's where the similarity ends. Those wheels aren't consumed by the microbes that grow on them; they instead provide a substrate for aerobic bacteria which help regulat chemistry. This is not even close to the same thing.

      • by pubwvj (1045960)

        Unless you've used them for a long time and noticed that indeed they do get consumed. Undoubtedly it varies with the brand and the resins and such used.

  • Summary makes no sense. Does anybody proofread these things?

    Hahah, just kidding. Course they don't.

  • Have you heard about the BP oil spill lately? Probably not, why? Because the bacteria in the gulf ate most of it. Yes it did cause localized problems. I come from a place where nature can kill you if you don't pay attention to it, it has far bigger forces than we realize. There are people that complain about where we put roads and how much environmental 'damage' they cause. The roads they shut down 20 years ago in the forests are unrecognizable in most places, the ones in the desert take a little longer. I

  • But this can't be right. I heard there's a continent the size of Atlantis made of plastic floating out in the Pacific Gyre.

    (Plastic dinosaurs live there. With beanie babies riding them.)

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