Plastic-eating bacteria found in 'ocean desert,' scientist says
Debris such as plastic and trash, shown on a Prestwick, Scotland, beach, may contain plastic-eating bacteria, findings suggest.
March 30th, 2011
03:24 PM ET

Plastic-eating bacteria found in 'ocean desert,' scientist says

Scientists have found an organism that may be eating plastic in the ocean, according to a report in Nature News.

But whether the bug is green or mean remains to be seen, a scientist told CNN on Wednesday.

It has been proven that microbes can degrade plastic, said marine microbiologist Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. What's significant is that the plastic is being degraded in a nutrient-poor area of the sea, an "ocean desert," Mincer said.

The bacteria, found in a region of the North Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea, is clearly breaking down the plastic, but scientists don’t know if the byproduct is environment-friendly waste or a toxin. If the bacteria  or its waste is consumed by larger organisms, the effects could be detrimental to aquatic life.

Examining items such as a fishing line and plastic bag, Mincer discovered the living cells entrenched in the plastic, seemingly gorging on it, he told Nature News.

In any event, the findings suggest the vast "garbage patches" that have been found in parts of the world's oceans and considered largely devoid of life may be full of living communities.

"We are seeing the plastic particles as a type of artificial reef that certain types of microbes can colonize," Mincer said. "Since plastic has a much longer residence time in the water column than any other natural particle in the water column, this could be making a significant impact."

The discovery of environs that encourage plastic-eating bacteria raises larger questions about the organisms'  toll on other aquatic life, Mincer said.

"One of the questions that I am interested in is: How does this artificially introduced plastic that is heavily colonized by microbes influence the rest of the water column microbial balance?" he asked.

The part of the Sargasso Sea that scientists studied is depleted of phosphorous and other nutrients, Mincer said.

"In other words, are the plastic colonizers stealing away phosphorous from others that would normally be receiving this share?"

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Filed under: Environment • Nature • Science
soundoff (87 Responses)
  1. Schlep

    Better yet a microbe that eats chinese Yaaaaa !

    April 13, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. George

    Here we have a bacteria that has evolved to consume materials that didn't exist only 100 years ago, and STILL there will be those that deny the process of evolution.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. harry0

    I believe. Hey you guys. I got a dog that eats plastic and his bm's come out encapsulated in gel caps

    April 13, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  4. bob

    Reminds me of and old George Carlin bit (RIP) Paraphrased greatly, the concept was:

    The whole "save the planet" movement is BS. People don't really care about saving the planet. People care about saving the PEOPLE. It's all about saving ourselves. The planet has been around for BILLIONS of years (estimated 4.6 billion) while humans have been around for about 6,000. We don't need to save the planet, the planet will be fine. And if the planet is so inclined, it will shake us off like a bunch of fleas.

    And he's right. Plastic... the one "unsolvable problem" humans have created. We hear about these giant islands of plastic debris floating around, and how it'll never break down and what not... but here we go, Mother Nature has already found a way, and is taking care of the problem for us. One day we'll realize, and thank her.

    Here's a little math, for comparison, because people tend to lose sight of the sheer size of numbers once they pass a certain point. Hopefully this helps.

    In years, roughly :

    Single Human life: 80
    All Human History: 6000
    Planet Earth's Age: 4,600,000,000

    Further, one human life represents about 1.3% of the entire human history. If you got 77 people together, their combined lifespans is equivelant to the entire duration our species has existed.

    The same comparison of human existance to earths existance gives you a number around 76,666,666. You need 76 million times the entire human existance to total the age of the earth.

    77
    76,666,666

    The human race is less substatial and bothersome to the earth, as that mosquito bite is to you.

    April 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Green schmeen

      You forgot to mention the part about human's being a plague on the earth. I don't think we'll last even as long as the dinosaurs. And good riddance!

      April 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Bob, all well put.. except human history is much more than 6000 years. newest evidence shows possibly 400,000 years.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  5. CharlieSeattle

    STOP IT!!

    Uutra-violet light breaks down plastic.

    Exposure to direct sunlight helps speed up the process. Plastics never actually 'decompose', they merely break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Being an inorganic material, in never will compost.

    Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_long_does_plastic_take_to_break_down#ixzz1KCl6VvSu

    April 21, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Santa

      if you honestly think that plastic doesn't decompose, maybe you should pay attention to the news. decomposition of matter is the act of some form of bacteria eating it and changing its form while excreting the waste material. decomposition of wood is accomplished by fungi and a lot of other organisms. leaves and other stuff is decomposed in similar ways. plastic bags aren't decomposed as fast as what you'd like but they DO decompose in the same manner. check out this web site "http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/06/11/anton_wylie_phages/" and you'll see that the solution was found by a 16 year old child in Canada. the bacteria couldn't consume anything else so it started to consume plastic and was living off it.

      June 30, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
  6. mrhapiguy

    Yes. We are simply poisoning our own food supply. And our air. And our water. And eventually we will war over what is left; until nothing is left and we no longer exist. Other forms of life, the planet, etc. will all carry on ...

    I think it odd that Deniers really do not understand the 'green' movement is really about self preservation and survival. Which is what we humans are all about.

    April 21, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. hapticz

    bacteria are the top dogs, we are some kind of hybrid derivative doomed to soon be extinct. bacteria adapt, we try to make other stuff adapt to us, our famous -"its their fault' syndrome.
    every time in known history, humans screw around (both ways) it leads to some vast un-natural re-direction of other species evolution. bacteria, being so numerous and very simple (like me) alter their genetic structure to fit the environment. it may be what we call 'crude', but it sure is working!

    April 23, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  8. Justin

    Just burn it!!
    Have you ever burned plastic? It shrivels up to a small size. Just burn it, then send it into outer space, we aren't going up there anyway. Perhaps the aliens will find it and know how to dissolve it.

    April 25, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • anononandon

      You should try to stop smoking it.

      April 27, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shania123

      haha! I agree!!!

      October 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      Burning large amounts of plastic causes air pollution. This is no solution to this problem.

      March 19, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Lord Fhalkyn

    GO PLASTIC EATING BACTERIA!!!

    April 26, 2011 at 7:55 am | Report abuse |
  10. K C

    Whatever byproduct they are releasing it must certainly be better than all the trash that is thrown into the ocean.

    April 27, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  11. anononandon

    So, when the sea birds feed their plastic to their babies, do they pass on the plastic eating bacteria too?
    Also, Plastics do not degrade for thousands of years in oceans or on land.

    April 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Santa

      it doesn't? why then do we already see degraded and decomposed plastics in the oceans after only 50 years?

      June 30, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. lolololololololololol

    dont worry im an expert in plastic

    April 29, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. autoversicherungen vergleich oesterreich

    Sentence Approve,people prove control path eventually contract entire bit again each none practical move interview thought afternoon top land share trust away direct very only directly somebody declare may explore mile aspect terms edge assume into charge better to respond actual fuel since exchange full executive stage knee film arrive significant health annual farmer milk insist any green health complex expectation pretty substantial substantial television only immediately over light home act obvious practice tone post sorry music bottle parliament open tell complete cos secondary require relevant alone simply employment royal serious trade as

    October 6, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Shania123

    How bout we just.. stop using plastic??? Doing dishes isn't fun but i think we'll live.

    October 14, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Renrose

    well, the important is..we as a human being should be aware of what's happening in our surrounding and I know you guys there knows that one of our problem is the garbage. It's really rational though that if the population increase, human is affected. We just be thankful that some scientist discover organisms that could help decomposition in a faster way. Maybe..it could help.

    January 3, 2012 at 3:25 am | Report abuse |
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