Why Ocean Microbes Aren't Breaking Down Plastic Despite Pollution

Jim Crocker
16th May, 2024

Why Ocean Microbes Aren't Breaking Down Plastic Despite Pollution

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • The University of Auckland study examined the global ocean microbiome's ability to degrade various environmental plastics
  • Some microbial enzymes can break down certain plastics, but the overall capacity of the global ocean microbiome to degrade diverse plastics is limited
  • Specific regions show higher microbial plastic degradation potential, influenced by local environmental conditions and microbial communities
Plastic pollution poses a significant threat to marine ecosystems, affecting everything from tiny plankton to large seabirds. A recent study led by the University of Auckland has taken a deep dive into the global ocean microbiome's potential to degrade diverse environmental plastics[1]. This research is crucial as it addresses a gap in our understanding of how marine microbes might help mitigate plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is widespread but distributed unevenly across the world's oceans. Marine organisms, such as petrels, that are vulnerable to plastic ingestion or entanglement also have uneven distributions. Understanding where these wildlife encounters with plastic occur is essential for targeting research and mitigation efforts[2]. Furthermore, plastic pollution can chemically and physically impact marine life, potentially altering global carbon cycling and climate[3]. The breakdown of plastics leads to the formation of microplastics, which are persistent and accumulate in ocean sediments, entering the food chain and causing toxic effects[4]. The University of Auckland study utilized metatranscriptomic data from an international ocean survey to examine global and regional patterns in microbial plastic degradation potential. Metatranscriptomics is a method that studies the RNA transcripts produced by microorganisms, providing insights into their metabolic activities and capabilities. This approach allowed researchers to identify microbial enzymes that could potentially degrade various types of plastics. The study found that while some microbial enzymes can degrade certain plastics, the overall capacity of the global ocean microbiome to break down diverse environmental plastics is limited. This finding is significant because it highlights the challenges in relying on natural microbial processes to mitigate plastic pollution. The research identified specific regions where microbial plastic degradation potential is higher, suggesting that local environmental conditions and microbial communities play a role in this process. The findings of this study tie into earlier research in several ways. For instance, the uneven distribution of plastic pollution and its impact on marine organisms, such as petrels, underscores the importance of understanding regional differences in microbial plastic degradation potential[2]. Additionally, the potential for plastic pollution to affect global carbon cycling and climate through both chemical and physical mechanisms[3] aligns with the study's focus on the microbiome's role in breaking down plastics. The persistence of microplastics in ocean sediments and their entry into the food chain[4] further emphasizes the need for effective strategies to address plastic pollution. By identifying regions with higher microbial plastic degradation potential, the study provides valuable insights for future research and conservation efforts. It suggests that targeted actions in these areas could enhance the natural breakdown of plastics, potentially mitigating some of the harmful effects on marine ecosystems. However, the limited overall capacity of the global ocean microbiome to degrade diverse plastics also indicates that relying solely on microbial processes is insufficient. Comprehensive strategies, including reducing plastic production and improving waste management, are essential to address the plastic pollution crisis effectively. In conclusion, the University of Auckland's study sheds light on the potential and limitations of the global ocean microbiome in degrading environmental plastics. By integrating findings from earlier research, it underscores the complexity of plastic pollution and the need for multifaceted approaches to mitigate its impact on marine ecosystems.

EnvironmentGeneticsMarine Biology


Main Study

1) Uncoupled: investigating the lack of correlation between the transcription of putative plastic-degrading genes in the global ocean microbiome and marine plastic pollution

Published 15th May, 2024


Related Studies

2) Global assessment of marine plastic exposure risk for oceanic birds.


3) Implications of plastic pollution on global marine carbon cycling and climate.


4) Sources, sinks and transformations of plastics in our oceans: Review, management strategies and modelling.


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