Tiny Balls of Life

Some people might see these floating objects as trash, but some organisms might see them as a vital habitat, something to cling to in a region where there normally is no hard substrate. Imagine a smaller scale where instead of a float with big barnacles, we find a tiny ball of life encrusted with a thriving microbial community. The plastic substrate in the ocean can have many times the number of microbes as ambinent seawater.

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Alli Fong is investigating the microbial life that may have found new habitats by attaching to the tiny pieces of plastic adrift in the Pacific. She is collecting and preserving pieces of plastic to investigate the bacterial and other microbial communities growing on them. She will be sequencing the DNA of the plastic-associated organisms to look for gene markers so she can determine what species are taking advantage of this habitat. Alli and other scientists on board will also be looking for other genes to find out if the microbes are photosynthesizing, and thus providing both food and oxygen to the ecosystem. Imagine how big the Pacific is, and how many billions of pieces of plastic could be out there. Microbes are living on these plastic pieces may actually a noticeable effect on nutrient cycling processes in the ocean. That is one of the things we hope to start understanding from the research on this trip: do the microbes growing on the plastic have an effect on productivity and chemical cycling?

We might think "why would these microbes matter, they are so small," but the oceans are huge, and full of microbes which actually make up 98% of the marine biomass. That's amazing: if you gathered everything living in the ocean, whales included, the microbes make up almost all of the life. We are lucky to have so many marine microbes on the planet, because they produce half of the oxygen in our atmosphere. Other marine microbes help stabilize the climate by transforming atmospheric CO2 into cellular material, which is another reason we can appreciate marine microbes. However, if there are many more microbes living in an area like the Pacific garbage patch, because there is more substrate for them to grow on, changes could occur in patterns that have existed for a very long time. On this trip we hope to gain a better understanding of the effects marine plastic might have on the microbes and their important functions.