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Ocean Plastics Host Surprising Microbial Array

samzenpus posted about a year ago | from the life-will-find-a-way dept.

Science 117

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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Obligatory. (0)

HornWumpus (783565) | about a year ago | (#44033107)

The Earth wants plastic!

Re:Obligatory. (3, Funny)

Tablizer (95088) | about a year ago | (#44033429)

Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson!

...cause their own ecological problems (5, Funny)

fustakrakich (1673220) | about a year ago | (#44033233)

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.

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (2)

macraig (621737) | about a year ago | (#44033615)

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.

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

beernutz (16190) | about a year ago | (#44033657)

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

Yeah, much better. 8(

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033863)

But still Anonymous Cowards!

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44037139)

Worse healthcare? At least you wouldn't be having to look at the possibility of help with the realization that you'd never get it.

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033677)

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! Then the drastically lower human population would all be concentrated in mega-dense societies only within horse range of any farmable land, squabbling over the remnants of the much lower crop yields that can't possibly support us, and...

Wait, hang on, I thought you said this was a GOOD thing?

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

losfromla (1294594) | about a year ago | (#44034335)

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 per acre or so. Doesn't sound too bad to me. What density where you picturing AC?

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44034705)

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 per acre or so. Doesn't sound too bad to me. What density where you picturing AC?

You are just another GMO hater. The attrition rates of those communities was difficult to bear, even for the ones to call the canyon land "home". So we move to agrarian life styles? ever talk to the amish about birth rates/defects/mortality? You should really consider all the implications of your statements. At the end of the day, pro-organic is anti-human or at least elitist human (arians anyone), because more people need to die than stay alive to sustain such a lifestyle.

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

thoughtlover (83833) | about a year ago | (#44033817)

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]

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

losfromla (1294594) | about a year ago | (#44034349)

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.

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44038077)

The earth isn't in a shit shape at all. We all die and it keeps on spinning. Mars is fine too. All the atmosphere blew away and it kept on spinning. Who needs who?

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (2)

Richy_T (111409) | about a year ago | (#44033879)

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.

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

fustakrakich (1673220) | about a year ago | (#44035125)

...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.

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (3, Informative)

Enigma2175 (179646) | about a year ago | (#44035275)

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!

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

VortexCortex (1117377) | about a year ago | (#44037647)

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!

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year ago | (#44038567)

These days, the manure would be really useful for syngas plants.

Re:...cause their own ecological problems (1)

citizenr (871508) | about a year ago | (#44036511)

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

I bet they're pseudomonas putida (4, Interesting)

afidel (530433) | about a year ago | (#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.

Re:I bet they're pseudomonas putida (4, Informative)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about a year ago | (#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.

Re:I bet they're pseudomonas putida (2)

HornWumpus (783565) | about a year ago | (#44033583)

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.

Re:I bet they're pseudomonas putida (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033811)

I am well aware of the cultures living on various places of my body... that is why i have not washed for years and do my best not to move around and disturb their habitats.

Re:I bet they're pseudomonas putida (1)

HornWumpus (783565) | about a year ago | (#44034825)

AC is old what's his name, the emacs/GPL dude. We should be honored I suppose.

Re:I bet they're pseudomonas putida (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year ago | (#44038613)

That kilogram or so of bacteria in your body is one of the things that keep you alive. Be glad you have them.

Re:I bet they're pseudomonas putida (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year ago | (#44038601)

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.

Isn't this what we would expect. (4, Insightful)

cfulton (543949) | about a year ago | (#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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033311)

And I'm always astounded by what an arrogant ass you are.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (3, Interesting)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about a year ago | (#44033335)

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:Isn't this what we would expect. (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033421)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (3, Insightful)

omnichad (1198475) | about a year ago | (#44033499)

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

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

NatasRevol (731260) | about a year ago | (#44034419)

Or water the landfills with deep ocean water.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0, Troll)

girlintraining (1395911) | about a year ago | (#44033945)

Despite the hype, plastics are still very chemically similar to the organic compounds they are made from.

Know what the difference is between Strychnine and LSD is, chemically? There isn't one. But the way the atoms are arranged will make the difference between a pleasant experience and a painful death.

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.

If right now I pushed a button and humanity suffered a total existance failure, in a thousand years there would be no buildings. No concrete. No roads. There would be almost nothing left that could still be identified as foreign, still identified as having been left by humans. Except plastic. Most of our plastic will still be here, in the same form we molded them from, thousands of years from now. Nuclear waste breaks down faster than plastic.

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.

Actually, the main arguments is that most plastic production depends on dead dino juice and there's only a limited supply of it, that it doesn't break down on less than a geological timescale, that it's difficult to re-use, and as it shreds itself down to the molecular level, it becomes a poison that infests the entire food chain.. and is now appearing in our own blood and tissue samples in detectable quantities, as well as being linked to all manner of health problems.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (2)

gmhowell (26755) | about a year ago | (#44035017)

Know what the difference is between Strychnine and LSD is, chemically? There isn't one. But the way the atoms are arranged will make the difference between a pleasant experience and a painful death.

Please stick to topics on which you have at least a passing familiarity. LSD is C20H25N3O. Strychnine is C21H22N2O2. Not even vaguely similar chemically.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44037305)

On the bright side, carbon jailed in plastic isn't warming the climate.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (5, Funny)

Anne_Nonymous (313852) | about a year ago | (#44033435)

>> 'plastics' are under a century old

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

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033721)

not when they have been reared on American cheese

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

RabidReindeer (2625839) | about a year ago | (#44034399)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

TheCarp (96830) | about a year ago | (#44034707)

> 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 parallel. Whether its chemical or biological, its parallel and its massive scale compared to what it needs to produce. .And putting the new substance in water, where the particles move in the densities that they can... its a perfect recipe for speeding the process up, not just change but, in terms of exposure to as many things as possible.

Even with plastics being so new, there are so many organisms, producing so many different substances that it seems unlikely to me that a few of them don't already have pieces that fit the new puzzle. It doesn't even have to be a single organism.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about a year ago | (#44034977)

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...

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

flyingfsck (986395) | about a year ago | (#44036969)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (4, Informative)

girlintraining (1395911) | about a year ago | (#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:Isn't this what we would expect. (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033505)

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...

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (2)

cfulton (543949) | about a year ago | (#44033703)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (3, Insightful)

girlintraining (1395911) | about a year ago | (#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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033751)

You like read the summary at least right?

How about at least the article? http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/web/2013/06/Ocean-Plastics-Host-Surprising-Microbial.html

"Mincer says 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"

It is a possible explanation that they are eating it. At the very least they are dissolving it somehow to make the pits in the plastic.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

girlintraining (1395911) | about a year ago | (#44033851)

You like read the summary at least right?

Yes, and unlike you, I also used my brain: Chopping something that's lighter than water in half doesn't change the fact that it's still lighter than water. Repeating a process a thousand more times and expecting a different result isn't just wrong... it's the very definition of insanity.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

BluBrick (1924) | about a year ago | (#44034623)

Yes, and unlike you, I also used my brain: Chopping something that's lighter than water in half doesn't change the fact that it's still lighter than water. Repeating a process a thousand more times and expecting a different result isn't just wrong... it's the very definition of insanity.

Brain use is good, but things aren't always as simple as you think. Some plastics are heavier than water, but float anyway. Polystyrene is a classic example. It is actually slightly heavier than seawater (around 1.05 gm/cm3 vs 1.03 gm/cm3) therefore, it sinks. Expanded polystyrene (aka styrofoam) is comprised of exactly the same polymer, but has minute cells of air incorporated into its physical structure, thereby reducing its effective density to as little as 0.035 gm/cm^3. Now, that stuff floats. The more finely you divide a piece of styrofoam, the more cells you rupture and the closer you will get to each piece being solid polystyrene which will, as we have established, sink.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

Richy_T (111409) | about a year ago | (#44033917)

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

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a year ago | (#44034125)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

Richy_T (111409) | about a year ago | (#44034147)

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

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (2)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a year ago | (#44034363)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (4, Insightful)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a year ago | (#44033941)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44034165)

I didn't see an assertion on his part that "...and so we don't have to deal with it." Rather, we just shouldn't be surprised if there is an adaptation.

Regardless, I still think too much of environmentalist thinking places too much value on an imagined "pristine" environment, when the reality is that much of that vision is just a glimpse of the world as it was X years ago, even though that glimpse may not have been in equilibrium.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

RabidReindeer (2625839) | about a year ago | (#44034441)

I didn't see an assertion on his part that "...and so we don't have to deal with it." Rather, we just shouldn't be surprised if there is an adaptation.

Regardless, I still think too much of environmentalist thinking places too much value on an imagined "pristine" environment, when the reality is that much of that vision is just a glimpse of the world as it was X years ago, even though that glimpse may not have been in equilibrium.

I think the word you really wanted was "idealized".

One of the things that keeps me in check (I hope) is reminding myself that for all the hoopla about radioactive waste disposal, the stuff that comes out of a nuclear reactor is less radioactive than what went in(*). Which was mined out of the "pristine" environment.

*Breeder reactors excepted.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44035837)

One of the things that keeps me in check (I hope) is reminding myself that for all the hoopla about radioactive waste disposal, the stuff that comes out of a nuclear reactor is less radioactive than what went in(*). Which was mined out of the "pristine" environment.

It was certainly not "mined out of the "pristine" environment" in radioactive concentrations anything close to that of the waste from a reactor. There is a great deal of processing involved to purify radioactive materials to a fissionable state.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

RabidReindeer (2625839) | about a year ago | (#44034417)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

khallow (566160) | about a year ago | (#44035299)

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:Isn't this what we would expect. (2, Insightful)

Tablizer (95088) | about a year ago | (#44033409)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033413)

I'm always confounded when evolution does what it is predicted to do and we are all surprised by it.

Who's surprised? Mark Schrope and MTorrice maybe, but you're not, I'm not, the scientists aren't.[quote]Plastics are the most abundant form of marine debris, with global production rising and documented impacts in some marine environments, but the influence of plastic on open ocean ecosystems is poorly understood, particularly for microbial communities. Plastic Marine Debris (PMD) collected at multiple locations in the North Atlantic was analyzed with Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and next-generation sequencing to characterize the attached microbial communities. We unveiled a diverse microbial community of heterotrophs, autotrophs, predators, and symbionts, a community we refer to as the "Plastisphere." Pits visualized in the PMD surface conformed to bacterial shapes as suggesting active hydrolysis of the hydrocarbon polymer. Small-subunit ribosomal RNA gene surveys identified several hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria, supporting the possibility that microbes play a role in degrading PMD. Some Plastisphere members may be opportunistic pathogens such as specific members of the genus Vibrio that dominated one of our plastic samples (the authors, unpublished data). Plastisphere communities are distinct from surrounding surface water, implying that plastic serves as a novel ecological habitat in the open ocean. Plastic has a longer half-life than most natural floating marine substrates, and a hydrophobic surface that promotes microbial colonization and biofilm formation, differing from autochthonous substrates in the upper layers of the ocean.[/quote]Just because some people feel the need to make every science story extra exciting doesn't mean we're all ignorant and surprised.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (3, Informative)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about a year ago | (#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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

cfulton (543949) | about a year ago | (#44033825)

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 animals since a generation can be measured in minutes. I would think all that of the bacteria that are becoming immune to our antibiotics would be proof enough of that.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

UnknowingFool (672806) | about a year ago | (#44033531)

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.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033553)

Yeah boy howdy, how about those Dioxin- or Asbestos-eating microbes? Isn't it nice that we don't have to worry about pollution? ^__^

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

peppepz (1311345) | about a year ago | (#44033943)

This is no evolution. Evolution can't show its effects in such a short time span. We're just seeing existing species eating the trash that we're dumping into the ocean.

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

The problem is that most of the “changes in ecology” that happened in the last two centuries boil down to the human species consistently and predictably expanding into new territories and displacing any other species originally living there. This phenomenon is a complete novelty in the historical record, and the only possible equilibrium it can eventually lead to is the survival of a very limited amount of species: ours, the domestic ones that we need to eat, and the ones that live on our dejections. These bacteria apparently belong to the latter group.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44034149)

This is no evolution. Evolution can't show its effects in such a short time span.

I don't think you know what you are talking about.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

peppepz (1311345) | about a year ago | (#44034253)

It's always a pleasure to have such pleasant, enriching conversations here.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44034309)

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

peppepz (1311345) | about a year ago | (#44036601)

The first result of that search reports a measurement of the time of divergence between two species of bacteria between 120 and 160 million years with a substitution rate in protein-coding DNA of 0.7-0.8 million years which is remarkably similar to that observed in the nuclear genes of mammals, invertebrates, and flowering plants.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (2)

TapeCutter (624760) | about a year ago | (#44034701)

This is no evolution. Evolution can't show its effects in such a short time span

So you're saying antibiotic resistant bacteria existed before antibiotics?

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

peppepz (1311345) | about a year ago | (#44036697)

I'm calling that selection and not evolution because the bacteria selected by a particular kind of antibiotic still belong to the same species as their progenitors and that's why antibiotics are, in most cases, still effective.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

Maxo-Texas (864189) | about a year ago | (#44035639)

It certainly can.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._coli_long-term_evolution_experiment [wikipedia.org]

Each new child born has multiple mutations.

If we were exposed to highly selective pressure (99% of humans die without this mutation) then we would evolve quickly.

In the case of these particular bacteria run 500 generations per 75 days.

That's like 10,000 years of human time-- almost 50,000 years of human time sacle evolution per human year.

Plastic has been common in the ocean for about four decades.

So that's like 50,000*10*4 = 2,000,000 years worth of human time scale evolution for these bacteria since plastic became common.

Re:Isn't this what we would expect. (1)

manu0601 (2221348) | about a year ago | (#44035875)

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 (3, Interesting)

gmuslera (3436) | about a year ago | (#44033315)

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.

Re:Silver lining (2)

cangrejoinmortal (1315615) | about a year ago | (#44034443)

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 species.

Re:Silver lining (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | about a year ago | (#44034727)

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 (4, Insightful)

Tablizer (95088) | about a year ago | (#44033359)

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.

Re:Frankenbug (3, Funny)

srmalloy (263556) | about a year ago | (#44033611)

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

You get something like Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters [amazon.com] .

Re:Frankenbug (2)

afidel (530433) | about a year ago | (#44034559)

I was thinking The Andromeda Strain.

Re:Frankenbug (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033761)

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

Helpful little buggers. They're just assisting your slide into third base.

Re:Frankenbug (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about a year ago | (#44035049)

or more likely a third slap

Re:Frankenbug (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44034637)

The novel Ill Wind is based on that very premise: http://www.amazon.com/Ill-Wind-Kevin-J-Anderson/dp/B008SM0DVI/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1371510567&sr=1-3&keywords=ill+wind

Re:Frankenbug (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44035209)

On a more comedic note, there was the last episode of "Full Metal Panic! Fumoffu" about something akin to this, a bacteriological weapon gone wrong that eats through polyester clothings.
Fun times were had.

Credibility (1, Insightful)

argStyopa (232550) | about a year ago | (#44033465)

"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".

Just be happy, once, that something is a good thing without always trying to find the lining of doom and gloom and people might not just treat you like the gloomy harbingers you are.

Re:Credibility (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033567)

Which alternative has more of an incentive?

Re:Credibility (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033745)

DDT controlled mosquitos quietly nicely. I suppose we shouldn't have never looked that gift horse in the mouth...

Re:Credibility (1)

NeutronCowboy (896098) | about a year ago | (#44033925)

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.

Re:Credibility (1)

DRJlaw (946416) | about a year ago | (#44034533)

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 tsunami, and the same sort of plastic detritus that is destined to migrate pretty much everywhere. Unless the conditions around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope reliably kill these organisms, you're probably waiting for confirmation that they exist in the Indian and Pacific oceans rather than politician-ordered seeding.

Unless you're proposing to sterilize the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, there is very little chance of getting ahead of the "general mess." The cats are well and truly out of the bag, and it's more likely than not that they're already living in other places where you simply haven't looked.

Re:Credibility (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44037541)

eco-nuts

Aaand that is the point where everybody stopped taking you seriously.

You may not be aware of this, but rural Alabama and similar backwards neocon redneck shitholes are the only places where your comment doesn't sound completely insane.

Everyone else... even pigs... knows that one doesn't shit where one eats.
Keep on destroying yourselves. Just stop fucking up our planet just because your penis is as small as your brain. Or we'll fuck up you.
We have to live here, you know?

An artificial reef for micro organisms (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033641)

Thats what I always thought when I saw doom stories about those oceanic garbage patches.

Not an argument against recycling but more proof the Malthusian doomers are wrong again.

Re:An artificial reef for micro organisms (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | about a year ago | (#44034849)

There were 3B people on the planet when I was born, now there are 7B. Malthusians are just extrapolating the mathematics of unrestrained growth to it's inevitable conclusion, they're not wrong, they're inaccurate. People also extrapolate to predict the sun will rise in the west the next day, but nature offers no guarantees it will cooperate.

Re:An artificial reef for micro organisms (1)

Maxo-Texas (864189) | about a year ago | (#44035669)

The peak number has been sliding upwards during my lifetime so I've been dubious.

However, the "hans" guy on TED says we have reached a point where the average child born replaces one human who is dying. He has a nice video that explains it and shows that this will result in an increase from 7 billion to 10 billion.

Only problem is that since it was recorded the peak number has risen to 11 billion.
So apparently the birth rate isn't really down to 1baby:1old dying person yet.

Me?

I think that high breeders will come to dominate the population and low breeders will get selected out.

And so the population will continue going up until it breaks.

But I'll give Hans his due and say it will probably be slower than I had previously thought.

Marine Aquariums (1)

pubwvj (1045960) | about a year ago | (#44033773)

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.

Re:Marine Aquariums (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a year ago | (#44033951)

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.

Bacteria (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44033823)

Who knew groups of bacteria are called a suite.

Explanation for what? (1)

Richy_T (111409) | about a year ago | (#44033841)

Summary makes no sense. Does anybody proofread these things?

Hahah, just kidding. Course they don't.

Gaea strikes back (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44034119)

Life will thrive on this planet no matter what we do to it. The only questions are: Will we like the life that thrives under the conditions we create, and will humankind continue to be one of the species that thrives under the consitions we create?

I believe The Andromeda Strain featured a polymer-eating microbe if I'm not mistaken...

Same as BP oil spill (1)

wakeboarder (2695839) | about a year ago | (#44035271)

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. If we all disappeared from the earth tomorrow, in 100 years you wouldn't find much, in 1000 you'd find really little, even metal goes away eventually. I wish people would be reasonable about the planet we live on, if we weren't here the earth's processes and live would continue on like they have since day 1.

Not a big surprise (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44035987)

We really do depend on evolution too much. We toss our plastic crap into the ocean. Evolution in the way of bacteria starts to grow on the plastic, digesting and eating it. They can't get through all of it, but the break it down. Other bacteria eat those bacteria and also their waste, and slowly the plastic is removed from the ecosystem. Its shitty the way we over-rely on evolution to take care of our garbage for us, but its nice that its there. Note: I don't believe that there are any bacteria that can survive hard radiation... our radioactive crap is ours.

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