Plastic-Invading Microbes from Sewage to Sea

Jenn Hoskins
30th April, 2024

Plastic-Invading Microbes from Sewage to Sea

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • The study at Bangor University explored how plastic waste may help spread antibiotic resistance in bacteria
  • Microplastics in wastewater can carry bacteria and genes that make them resistant to antibiotics
  • The research suggests that biofilms on plastics in water may boost the transfer of these resistance genes
In recent years, two significant environmental concerns have been at the forefront of scientific research: the accumulation of plastics in our ecosystems and the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR occurs when bacteria evolve to withstand the drugs designed to kill them, like antibiotics. This resistance can spread among bacteria and has the potential to turn treatable infections into deadly threats. Scientists at Bangor University have embarked on a study to investigate the connection between these two issues, particularly focusing on how plastic waste might contribute to the spread of AMR[1]. The study by Bangor University delves into the world of the 'plastisphere'—the complex ecosystem that forms on the surface of plastic debris in the environment. These surfaces host biofilms, which are communities of microorganisms, including bacteria, that stick to each other and to surfaces, often enveloped in a protective slime. The concern is that these biofilms could act as hotspots for the exchange of AMR genes between bacteria. Previous research has indicated that environments with poor sanitation, where waste—including human waste and plastics—accumulate, can become breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria (ARB)[2]. Efforts to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are crucial in combatting the spread of AMR. Additionally, wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are known to harbor and potentially disseminate ARB and antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) due to the diverse microbial communities and selection pressures present[3]. The Bangor University study expands on this knowledge by exploring the role of microplastics in WWTPs and the wider environment. Microplastics, tiny fragments of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size, have been found in large numbers in wastewater influent and effluent, as well as in the sludge produced by WWTPs[4]. These microplastics can carry a variety of pollutants, including bacteria and potentially ARGs. The study suggests that the biofilms on these microplastics could facilitate the transfer of ARGs among bacteria, exacerbating the AMR problem. Methods used to detect and quantify microplastics and ARGs have improved in recent years, with technologies like metagenomic sequencing providing detailed insights into the microbial communities on plastics and in WWTPs[3]. However, there is still a lack of standardized methods and insufficient data on the exact relationship between microplastics, biofilms, and AMR, which the Bangor University study aims to address[5]. One of the key challenges in understanding the plastisphere's role in AMR spread is deciphering the complex interactions within biofilms. These interactions can include the transfer of ARGs through various mechanisms, such as conjugation (bacteria-to-bacteria DNA transfer), transformation (uptake of free DNA from the environment), and transduction (DNA transfer via viruses that infect bacteria). The study's findings could lead to better management practices in WWTPs and inform strategies to mitigate the release of microplastics and associated ARGs into the environment. The Bangor University research contributes to a growing body of evidence that underscores the need for a holistic One Health approach to tackle AMR, integrating human, animal, and environmental health strategies[2]. By understanding the role of the plastisphere, we can develop more effective interventions to reduce the spread of AMR, protecting both environmental and public health. In conclusion, the Bangor University study provides a crucial link between plastic pollution and the spread of AMR, offering new perspectives on how our management of waste can influence the proliferation of resistant bacteria. As the scientific community continues to unravel the complexities of the plastisphere, this research marks an important step towards safeguarding our health and the health of our ecosystems from these intertwined threats.

SustainabilityMarine Biology


Main Study

1) Microbial communities colonising plastics during transition from the wastewater treatment plant to marine waters

Published 29th April, 2024

Related Studies

2) Updated research agenda for water, sanitation and antimicrobial resistance.

3) Monitoring antibiotic resistance genes in wastewater treatment: Current strategies and future challenges.

4) A review of the removal of microplastics in global wastewater treatment plants: Characteristics and mechanisms.

5) Microplastics in wastewater treatment plants: Detection, occurrence and removal.

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