Plastics Harm Oxygen-Producing Bacteria

Sunday, May 26, 2019 - 15:16

Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia have discovered that the plastic polluting the world's oceans is negatively affecting the oxygen levels that these bacteria produce.

According to the Macquarie University official website, ten per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from just one kind of bacteria in the ocean and now laboratory tests have shown that these bacteria are susceptible to plastic pollution, according to a study published in Communications Biology.

Chemicals leaching from plastics reduce the growth, and impair the photosynthesis and hence oxygen production of Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria. It has been estimated that these bacteria alone account for 10% of the total oxygen production on Earth.

“We found that exposure to chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfered with the growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria,” says lead author and Macquarie University researcher Dr. Sasha Tetu.

In the lab, the team exposed two strains of Prochlorococcus found at different depths in the ocean to chemicals leached from two common plastic products—grey plastic grocery bags (made from high-density polyethylene) and PVC matting.

They found that exposure to these chemicals impaired the growth and function of these microbes—including the amount of oxygen they produce—as well as altering the expression of a large number of their genes.

“Our data shows that plastic pollution may have widespread ecosystem impacts beyond the known effects on macro-organisms, such as seabirds and turtles,” says Sasha.

“If we truly want to understand the full impact of plastic pollution in the marine environment and find ways to mitigate it, we need to consider its impact on key microbial groups, including photosynthetic microbes.”

Plastic pollution has been estimated to cause more than US$13 billion in economic damage to marine ecosystems each year, and the problem is only getting worse with marine plastic pollution estimated to outweigh fish by 2050.

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