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. Frank

    People of the World.
    If salty sea water can carrode steel ships then plastic is not a problem.

    March 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • yusakhar

      When furhter-fetched non-sequiturs are written, Frank will probably be their author.

      March 30, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • pockets

      Right Frank, and your an expert on plastic are you, that's certainly reassuring.

      March 30, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastafarian

      did you really just type that, Frank? moron.

      March 31, 2011 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
    • daylate$short

      People of the world to Frank:

      March 31, 2011 at 6:33 am | Report abuse |
    • elisha

      He's gotta point. Salt corrodes metal. Water erodes stone and concrete. Im NOT an expert on plastic, but it seems plausible. And for all we know, our trash has become some unknown microbes treasure. Its all about genetic drift man.

      April 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • ThaGerGerm

      elisha ,Frank was doing badly enough on his own with his apples to oranges comparison without you adding in your equation of ( erosion=corrosion ).

      April 4, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laker

      Steel ships usually dont get lodged in the gills of fish like plastic

      April 6, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Troy

      That is true, but it is because of the electro-chemical reactions between the salt, the oxygen in the water, and the iron in the steel. It has nothing to do with the relative strength of the material. So, even though plastic is nowhere near as strong as steel, since it contains no iron, it can't create iron oxide when exposed to salty water and won't corrode.

      April 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      Frank may have a point. Not a direct correlation to metal and salt water, but to the adaptive power of the earth's ecosystem. It is NOT an incredibly delicate balance, it is a tremendously flexible one. Plastics are made from hydrocarbons. Life survives on carbon. The idea that microbes may be developing that eat plastic is not terribly shocking. There are microbes living inside nuclear containment vessels at power plants, there are microbes living off the sulfur smokers in the deep ocean. Dumping plastic in the ocean is a terrible thing, BUT, the ocean may have it's own solution. Gaia, baby. Peace love and coconuts.

      April 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank II

      Nice to see all you 'experts' chiming in. Bet Frank is putting all your replies in his 'crapbook'

      April 15, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank II

      Nice to see all you 'experts' chiming in. I bet Frank is putting all your replies in his 'crapbook'

      April 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • anuindia

      This is the greatest news for this world . If their is solution to handle plastic waste than earth's life will prolong. Otherwise we are not far from dying with starvation because of our land /soil /water all contaminated with this bloody plastic.

      we should all push the secientists to work and discover the unknown facts and help the world to come out of plastic menace.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Marg

      The only problem is that their is so much plastic that it will take decades to desolve it.
      Also what is this bacteria doing to the marine life.

      April 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Undecided

      Frank. When I grow up I want to be a just like you.

      April 29, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stentor

      Uh Frank, why don't you drop a piece of gold into some seawater, and then watch what happens. I guarantee you'll be waiting a long time. Steel and iron rust because they sit in the middle of the galvanic scale for metals. Plastic is impervious to sea and salt water in much the same way that gold is because there is no electrochemical or chemical effect on it. Gold sits at the top of the galvanic scale and is completely unaffected by seawater, which is why we have all those treasure stories, ships, and finds. Wouldn't exist if the gold had dissolved a long time ago now would it? Go to the back of the classroom Frank, put on your dunce cap, and go sit in the corner for awhile. You've earned it.

      April 29, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. American HISTORY

    what is america? can any product or absurdity with a female face or baby gagas. That is called human rights.. Sell any b.s. To the world like plastic noses and creepy holloween military female defaced agendas. Sell anything to cops or any country like an internet dressed in face selling agendas. Hilarious futures..the true dream revealed. Hey sarah.. Oprah..Paris..and teeny sales.. And the rest..sell us something. Just do not raise the real price of oil or downloading.

    March 30, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      I... what?

      March 30, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • buddha

      You don't exist.

      March 31, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Uraluni

      I think this was written with a random word generator.

      March 31, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • DoubleW

      Uh... yeah, sure, sure, anything you say, buddy... (edges nervously toward nearest exit).

      April 1, 2011 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
    • elisha

      Sarah Palin?? haha

      April 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • scivey

      schizophrenic much?

      April 2, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rhette, Thousand Oaks, CA

      I'll have what he's having, but make it a double

      April 8, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marg

      Sarah is that you??

      April 21, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mohamad

    Once I sat on a plastic bench naked after I streaked. A bug bit my fat butt. What's really weird is that I liked it. I tried to catch the insect with a Wal-Mart plastic bag,but it escaped.

    March 30, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • daylate$short

      Whoa, you shop at Walmart.......?!.

      March 31, 2011 at 6:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Rhette, Thousand Oaks, CA

      I can't believe I'm responding to a man who streaks, gets his butt bit, and a hole bit through his sack at Walmart. You might try Target next. I hear they won't try hitting a moving Target

      April 8, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  4. American Futures

    more of the same.. But with anti mubarik pretense as the victimers paint themselves in always larger victim faced cosmetic colors.. Baby faced bradley is a rock star.. And charlie sheen is now electable. Maybe assange can run for secretary of state with the correct cosmetic female face agency. Lol

    March 30, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leela

      Crack is bad. Put down the pipe and back away.

      April 1, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  5. What is needed

    Now can you find any bacteria to eat Plutonium?

    March 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jazz7


    March 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ole lady

    I with Jazz7. Don't stop now guys. I'm LMAO.

    March 30, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Herbert

    Yea guys keep it coming LMAO

    March 30, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Herbert

    Ooooo Mohamad my old friend, are you going to let Tom talk that way to you?

    March 30, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Teen Age Mutant Rodent Bung Super/Fighters

    "rodents" "we might have to deal with this plastic eating ZOMBIE bacteria be fore we go help mumar" !! "This could get ugly" "Rodents to your bung lauchers pre-pare for take off" !!.....

    March 30, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mohamad

    Hey Herbert, how come you choose that cuiry name, desgraciado

    March 30, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mohamad

    That was not me Herby, there's a fake Mohamad puto

    March 30, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Herbert

    @Mohamad: Because I stole it from Dwayne. Desgraciado, pinche puto

    March 30, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mohamad

    @herb I have to tell you a story about the grandmother of a friend

    March 30, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jj

    hey mohammed aka cesar did you get a job yet thought not

    March 30, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jazz7

      Hey butt head how u doing

      March 30, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
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