Plastic pollution in water harming bacteria that produces ten percent of our oxygen

In the first-ever study of its kind, scientists have tested the effect of plastic on the smallest organism in the ocean.

There are micro-organisms in the sea and they produce 10 percent of the world’s oxygen. They are under duress because of the increasing amount of plastic in the ocean.

The organism in question is Prochlorococcus, a photosynthetic organism — that means it is capable of photosynthesis. They are widely available on Earth and help by carbon cycling. It is also a source of food for many marine species.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications Biology, scientists studied the effects of plastic on these micro-organisms. They exposed them to two different types of plastic — grey plastic grocery bags and PVC matting which was left in seawater for five days. This process leached chemicals from the plastic, which was then used for testing.

Plastic pollution in water harming bacteria that produces ten percent of our oxygen

Semi-permanent islands made of ropes, buoys and other detritus continue to form in the Pacific Ocean 15 years after the Great Pacific garbage patch was first discovered in 1997. Image courtesy: Algalita

They found that plastic affects the organism's growth, the way they conduct photosynthesis and their genes. The study says that if they are affected, then the larger community of plankton will also be affected on a larger scale.

Studies on entanglement and ingestion of plastic by animals have been previously conducted. However, not much has been done with regards to micro-organisms and the effects of plastic. This is the first study to look at how plastic affects Prochlorococcus, which has a global population of three octillion individuals, according to The Independent.

While plastic has been estimated to cause $13 billion in economic damages, however, the effect on these micro-organisms will be incomparable. Dr Sasha Tetu the lead author and researcher, in an interview to the Independent, said. “So one in every 10 breaths of oxygen you breathe in is thanks to these little guys, yet almost nothing is known about how marine bacteria, such as Prochlorococcus, respond to human pollutants.”

“This study revealed a new and unanticipated danger of plastic pollution,” said Moore.

A dump of floating plastic bottles. Image credit: Pixabay

A dump of floating plastic bottles. Image credit: Pixabay

Lisa Moore, the co-author of the paper, also said that while this is cause for concern, for Prochlorococcus populations to be affected, it will be a few decades before there is enough plastic to harm these organisms on a global level.

This study was conducted in a laboratory and tests in the field is the next step.

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