‘A new and unanticipated danger of plastic pollution’: New study shows plastic’s effect on ocean bacteria that provide Earth’s oxygen

The study is the first of its kind to look at the impacts of plastic on this type of bacteria.


Bacteria in the ocean provides ten percent of the oxygen we breathe and plastic could be killing it.

According to a new study publishes in the Communications Biology, exposure to chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfere with the “growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria.”

Researchers of the study conducted laboratory tests, exposing two strains of Prochlorococcus found at different depths in the ocean to chemicals leached from two common plastic products – grey plastic grocery bags and PVC matting.

Results showed the exposure to the chemicals impaired the growth and function of the microbes, including the amount of oxygen they produced, as well as altered the expression of their genes.

Prochlorococcus are tiny bacteria but provide a huge source of carbohydrate and oxygen production in the ocean. 

“These tiny microorganisms are critical to the marine food web, contribute to carbon cycling and are thought to be responsible for up to 10 per cent of the total global oxygen production,” says Dr. Lisa Moore, co-author on the paper.

The study is the first of its kind to look at the impacts of plastic on this type of bacteria. Researchers are eager to explore if plastic pollution is having the same impact on the microbes in the ocean, outside of the laboratory.

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


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