Nature abhors a vacuum – says the old saying. Actually, it just turned out that the plastic garbage floating in the oceans has been colonized and slowly becomes a part of the biosphere.
Plastic trash is the curse of the oceans. Every year there is more and more of it. Lego blocks, balls, buttons, syringes, pieces of foil and plastic bottles, pens, toothbrushes, and even lighters and sunglasses - all of this is found in the stomachs of fish and sea birds. Small fragments of plastic are collected from many pristine beaches of all oceans. Water captures everything that finds its way into it from the lands littered by us, often distant by tens of thousands of kilometers. We throw away, throw away , throw away…
Most ocean filth accumulates in the North Pacific Ocean, between the equator and the line of latitude 40°N. Scientists estimate that about 100 million tons of garbage produced by humans floats there. Plastic is moved by the ocean currents that circulate in a clockwise direction, making a large loop between America and Asia. Inside the loop, the water moves sluggishly, and stronger winds occur sporadically. Many sailboats got stuck for a long time in this part of the ocean.
Today, the same thing happens to the waste – it is drifting slowly, gradually changing into a plastic soup. This is the name given by the scientist to the degraded by the sun and water microscopic pieces of plastics, in which bigger fragments of various objects float. When such a "soup" gets close to an island, its shores are covered with plastic. This has disastrous consequences for many marine animals that feed themselves and their offspring on the plastic diet.
It turns out, however, that there are those who, in the greatest oceanic bag of garbage on Earth, feel like a fish in water. These are small, mostly single-celled organisms that joyfully colonized the newest habitat on the globe.
The study of pioneer organisms that joined their fate with the garbage drifting in the ocean was undertaken by Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Linda Amaral Zettler of the Marine-Biological Laboratory. Both institutions are located in Woods Hole in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. The researchers analyzed some plastic trifle picked out of the North Pacific, and from the North Atlantic. Using the scanning electron microscope and an apparatus for the sequencing of genes they distinguished about a thousand species of bacteria and algae. Those indistinguishable to the naked eye, but very numerous amateurs of polypropylene, polyethylene and other plastics make up a fairly diverse ecosystem, which the researchers call "plastisphere".
Interestingly, in terms of the DNA structure, the species forming "the plastisphere" are already a bit different from the relatives from the ocean. "This means that this whole migrating menagerie could no longer so easily and quickly return to the water. Tied with plastic for the good and the bad. A couple of decades were enough. During this period, microbes built a food chain. What for one is waste, another eats as a dinner" - says Mincer.
One of the reasons for conducting the research was to verify whether the plastic particles spreading in the oceans can be used by pathogenic microorganisms. The answer is, unfortunately, positive. On a piece of polypropylene of a size of a pinhead, coming from the Atlantic waters, Mincer and Amaral-Zettler traced the bacteria of the Vibrio genus, contact with whom is usually quite unpleasant, and sometimes even dangerous to humans. A member of this hostile to us family is, among others, a dangerous Vibrio cholerae.
"Because plastic is very durable, pathogens can travel with it for many months, waiting for an opportunity to expand" - points out Mincer.
This is not a very curious conclusion, especially, when we realize that on every square kilometer of the ocean there is an average of several thousand plastic particles. And, after all, apart from living organisms – both, aggressive and peaceable - there are a variety of toxic compounds that got from the land into the water. Pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, mercury - the list of this filth is long. They also can get attached to pieces of plastic and travel with it across the seas and oceans.
The fear of "the plastic monster" is growing. When, at the beginning of November 2013, the U.S. media reported that to the shores of California an island of trash, twice the size of the territory of Poland, was approaching people almost begun to panic. There were warnings about millions of tons of filth, which were taken by the water from the shores of Japan after the tsunami in 2011, and which now, after going across Pacific with the sea currents, approach, along with toxins and pathogens, North America. For a few days people wondered how to fend off the assault of impurity, until it turned out that the information is untrue. "There is no Japanese island of garbage heading toward the United States" - reassured the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ), the American counterpart of our IMWM in a special statement. Least willing to believe the NOAA’s assurances were the inhabitants of Hawaii, located on the trail of the Pacific soup of filth, which after the terrible tsunami was enriched with the ingredients originating in Japan.