MBL team photographs bacterial hitchhikers on plastic waste in the ocean

WOODS HOLE, Mass. – Millions of tons of plastic waste clogs the world’s ocean, most of it tiny pieces of microplastic less than a quarter of an inch in size. Even the smallest marine animals can ingest these microplastics, potentially threatening their survival.

Marine microplastics don’t float on their own either – they quickly pick up a thin layer of bacteria and other microbes, a biofilm known as the “Plastisphere.” These biofilms can influence the fate of microplastics – causing them to sink or float, or break them down into even smaller pieces, for example. They can even make plastic smell or taste like food to some marine organisms. But very little is known about the types of microbes present in the plastisphere and how they interact with each other and with plastic.

Now, using an innovative microscopy method developed at Marine biology laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, scientists have revealed the structure of microbial communities covering microplastic samples from various ocean sites. The team, led by Linda Amaral-Zettler (who coined the term “Plastisphere”), Jessica mark welch, and Cathleen Schlundt, reports on its results this week in Molecular Ecology Resources.

The MBL team relied on a fluorescence imaging technique developed by Mark Welch and his colleagues to literally see the spatial organization of microbes on plastic samples. They did this by designing probes that fluorescently illuminated and targeted major groups of bacteria known in the plastisphere.

“We now have a toolkit that allows us to understand the spatial structure of the Plastisphere and, combined with other methods, a better way for the future to understand the main microbial players in the Plastisphere, what they do and their impact on the fate of plastic waste. in the ocean, ”said Amaral-Zettler, MBL fellow from the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and the University of Amsterdam.

Scientists have seen diatoms and bacteria colonize microplastics, dominated in all cases by three phyla: proteobacteria, cyanobacteria and bacteriodetes. Spatially, the microbial communities of the Plastisphere have been mixed heterogeneously, offering the first insight into bacterial interactions on marine microplastics.

Mark Welch and his colleagues have already applied their imaging technology to study microbial communities in the human mouth and in the digestive tract of cuttlefish and vertebrates.

This study personalized and extended the technology, called CLASI-FISH (Combinatorial Labeling And Spectral Imaging Fluorescence In Situ Hybridization). Amaral Zettler finds the technology so powerful that she plans to create a CLASI-FISH microscopy platform in the Netherlands.


The Laboratory of Marine Biology (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring basic biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, non-profit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.

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