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Plastic Debris in Oceans Spawns 'Plastisphere' of Microbes

Plastic Debris in Oceans Spawns 'Plastisphere' of Microbes

The plastic debris that litters the world's oceans has developed its own unique and diverse microbial ecosystem, researchers report.

Members of the rich microbial ecosystem living on plastic debris in scanning electron microscope images: a) a diatom and bacterial filaments; b) filamentous cyanobacteria; c) a predatory ciliate in foreground covered with symbiotic bacteria (inset), along with diatoms, bacteria, and filamentous cells; d) microbial cells that have pitted the surface of a piece of plastic debris. Image credit: Zettler, et al., Environmental Science & Technology

The microscopic community, which scientists dubbed the "plastisphere," includes more than 1,000 species of algae, bacteria, microscopic plants, symbiotic microbes and possibly even pathogens, the researchers say in Environmental Science & Technology. Some of the plastisphere microbes, many of which had never before been documented, contain genes that could help break down hydrocarbons, indicating the microbes may play a role in degrading the debris, the research shows.

Plastic trash is the most abundant type of debris in the ocean, inflicting harm on fish, birds, and marine mammals that are entangled by it or ingest it. Until now, researchers hadn't looked at microbes living on the debris, which make up a sort of artificial "microbial reef," one of the scientists said. The organisms on the plastic debris were different from the microbial communities living on driftwood, feathers and other natural items floating in the ocean, and also different from the assemblage of microbes living in open water, the researchers report.

Visit EcoWatch’s WATER and BIODIVERSITY pages for more related news on this topic.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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