The combined environmental threat of plastic pollution and ocean acidification are having significant impacts on species living in our oceans, according to new research.
An international team of scientists found that after three weeks of being submerged in the ocean, the bacterial diversity on plastic bottles was twice as great as on samples collected from the surrounding seawater.
However, in areas of elevated carbon dioxide, a large number of taxonomic groups – including bacteria that play an important role in carbon cycling – were negatively impacted.
Conversely, other species – including those that have previously been shown to thrive in areas of high ocean plastics and to potentially cause disease on coral reefs – were enriched by it.
The research also showed that while many groups of bacteria were shared between plastic, free-living and particle-associated samples, almost 350 were found uniquely on plastics.
Writing in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, researchers say the study adds to growing evidence that the increasing presence of plastic marine debris is providing a novel habitat for bacteria.
However, their results highlight that environmental conditions and local ecological processes will play an important role in determining its broader impact over the coming decades.
The study was led by the University of Tsukuba (Japan) and the University of Plymouth (UK), in collaboration with Keimyung University (South Korea), Kyungpook National University (South Korea) and Nanjing University (China).
Scientists submerged a number of plastic bottles in seas off the Japanese Island of Shikine-jima, a region renowned for its CO2 seeps, where the escaping gas dissolves into the sea water and creates conditions similar to that expected to occur worldwide in coming years.
They then used a combination of DNA sequencing and statistical techniques to analyse how bacteria colonise the plastic in comparison to the surrounding natural environment, and whether the increased CO2 levels would cause changes in the bacteria’s distribution.