One of the biggest problems facing the earth today, plastic pollution, could soon meet its match if students at Yale University are able to breed a recently discovered plastic-eating fungus on a large scale.
The group of students, part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, ventured to the jungles of Ecuador. The mission was to allow “students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way.” The group searched for plants, and then cultured the microorganisms within the plant tissue. As it turns out, they brought back a fungus new to science with a voracious appetite for a global waste problem: polyurethane.
The common plastic is used for everything from garden hoses to shoes and truck seats. Once it gets into the trash stream, it persists for generations. Anyone alive today is assured that their old garden hoses and other polyurethane trash will still be here to greet his or her great, great grandchildren. Unless something eats it.
Plastic pollution, exemplified by the giant floating patch of trash of immense size in the Pacific ocean, is highly detrimental to the world’s ecosystem because it breaks down extremely slow. In fact, plastic doesn’t actually biodegrade, what they do is they photodegrade–under the influence of solar UV radiations, plastics break down into ever smaller particles called microplastics:
This presents humans with a challenge that must soon be met, considering much of our plastic trash ends up in the ocean where it breaks down into toxic microplastics, winding up in sea life. Not only is this dangerous to the sea life, but it’s also dangerous to people because we end up consuming these very fish which we are poisoning with our trash.
Many groups and organizations have been formed to clean up plastic that ends up washing ashore on our beaches, but the vast majority of plastic pollution ends up in the ocean. This is why Oceanus is focusing on Oceanic cleanup, not beach cleanup. The planet has a growing addiction to cheap and industrious plastic, increasing in use exponentially every year with no end in sight. Something must be done–this is why the discovery of plastic-eating fungus is so exciting.
On an expedition to the rainforest of Ecuador, students from Yale’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry discovered a previously unknown fungus that has a healthy appetite for polyurethane. This fungus, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first one that is known to survive on polyurethane alone, and it can do so in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, which suggests that it could be used at the bottom of landfills.
The discovery was published in the scientific journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Researchers were also able to isolate the enzyme responsible for decomposing the plastic.
It isn’t exactly clear how this fungus will be implemented in bioremediation, but one can almost picture condensed floating plastic areas out at sea covered in mushrooms which will eat the plastic trash then sink into the ocean.
It’s also important to wean ourselves away from petroleum based plastics because they require many many resources just to manufacture, and pollution doesn’t start or end with the trash in the gutter. Many other sustainable options are available which could used instead, like hemp based or other plant based biodegradable plastics. Plastic awareness and restaint is also important, but cleanup is imperative.
With the advancements we are making in science and technology, there is no excuse not to act, no excuse not to heal our oceans, no excuse to promote the death sentence of humanity via lack of action.
We at Oceanus are currently looking into not only natural compositions that have the possibilities to break down plastic, but also nanotechnology, as well as plasma gasification (turning plastic into fuel)–not to mention our prime objective: recycling these marine plastics to form floating platforms outside of government control in which to foster life and freedom.
Original article by Nick Bernabe
President Obama has the authority and opportunity to leave the largest ocean conservation
legacy in history by extending the existing U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National
Monument from the current 50 nautical miles around the seven U.S. Pacific Remote Islands out to the full extent of its 200-nautical mile territorial waters – an increase of 1.8 million square km of new protected area (increase 10 times the current 225,000 square km Monument).
That action would create the largest protected area on Earth (an expanded Monument over 2 million square km) – and include some of the world’s most pristine deep sea and open ocean ecosystems, with unique and global biodiversity value. These pristine national treasures would receive full protection, meaning no extractive activities such as mining, drilling, and fishing would be allowed.
The new National Monument alone would protect 18 percent of the United States EEZ, and it
would double the area of the ocean that is currently fully protected globally. This would make the United States the undisputable world leader in ocean conservation, and set a record in conservation that is unlikely to be matched again in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.
There is widespread recognition that the oceans need more protection, especially no-take reserves, to protect and restore marine life. Currently less than 1% of the ocean is fully protected from fishing. The natural resource values of the oceanic region surrounding the Pacific Remote Islands MNM are superb, the need for their conservation is clear, and the timing is right for bold leadership by President Obama. The President is the only decision maker with the ability and authority to act swiftly and decisively to protect these national treasures, using the Antiquities Act. Should the President protect these places, he would make conservation history by establishing the world’s largest protected area. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the seeds for the National Park system through his proclamation of 18 National Monuments; President Bush helped increased the legacy of our ocean heritage; and now President Obama can leave an incomparable ocean legacy by protecting our unique and vibrant Pacific ocean ecosystems and establishing the largest ocean conservation legacy in history.
Read the whole report here: http://www.marine-conservation.org/media/filer_public/filer_public/2014/06/17/primnm_expansion_report.pdf
President Obama is deciding in days whether to create the world’s largest marine protected area. But a powerful fishing lobby is trying to sink the plan. Click to join the urgent call to save this Ocean of Hope. Petition can be found with more info here: avaaz.org/en/ocean_of_hope_usasam/?bwPiXdb&v=24636
Oceanus is currently looking for marine and/or structural engineers interested in becoming part of our team.
If interested, or if you know someone who may be interested, please email (or have them email) Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our full website can be found here: www.titan-oceanus.com
The sinuous Alaskan coastline, which is 50 percent longer than the rest of U.S. coastline, produces half of all commercial seafood caught in the nation. It is also ground zero for ocean acidification, one of the most devastating effects of our carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, those bountiful crab, clam, and salmon fisheries may not be around much longer.
What scientists don’t know is how much longer.
“The scary thing is that we don’t know the answer to that question yet,” says NOAA oceanographer Jeremy Mathis. “The potential is certainly there for it to be a rapid event, literally overnight. Whether that’s a slow degradation of the fisheries over decades, or whether a species is there one year and isn’t the next, we still don’t know that. That’s what I’m most concerned about.”
Ocean acidification can be thought of as climate change’s similarly disasterous twin. Oceans absorb around one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. As the concentration of CO2 rises, so does the amount that sinks into the ocean, raising the acidity of the water. Acidification is happening everywhere, but even more rapidly in Alaska, where cold coastal waters are able to absorb more carbon dioxide, and where circulation patterns bring deep, naturally acidic water up toward the surface. Sea creatures rely on specific conditions to stay alive. When those conditions change, so do their populations. Usually for the worse.
An acidification spike around the coast of British Columbia in February 2014 wiped out 10 million scallops. Acidification in the the Pacific Northwest around 2006 began dissolving oyster larvae, wiping out some hatchery populations completely. But projected acidification in Alaska would be on a much grander scale. Hundreds of thousands of people depend on the Alaskan fishing industry for jobs and food.
Mathis and his team’s latest research, published Tuesday in the journal Progress in Oceanography, paints a comprehensive picture of just how threatened certain Alaskan communities are by the prospect of fishery decline or collapse. The fishing industry in Alaska supports over 100,000 jobs, and generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue. Beyond commercial fishing, around 120,000 Alaskans, roughly 17 percent of the state’s population, rely on subsistence fishing to feed their families, according to the report. The analysis found that communities most reliant on fishery harvests, with relatively lower income and fewer alternative job options, face the highest risk of ocean acidification.
Mathis hopes his team’s research will provide a basis for local governments and nonprofits to design programs to help Alaska’s fishing communities survive lower and lower yields.
“Economic diversification is key,” Mathis says. “A lot of those places are almost solely reliant on the fishing industry. It’s like a stock portfolio. If you don’t have any diversification, you have a lot of risk.” The report proposes job training programs, increased educational options, and investing in new infrastructure to open up new opportunities to coastal southeastern and southwestern Alaska, where acidification is projected to have the most dire economic consequences.
Among the perils of higher acidity is that it makes it harder for mollusks like clams and crustaceans like crabs to build their shells. The lowered pH dissolves calcium carbonate, it difficult for the animals to extract enough of the mineral compound from the water to build shells. It also appears to damage gill function in crabs and change their behavior, as pointed out in a Newsweek cover story earlier this year.
Pteropod, a tiny swimming sea snail, is especially vulnerable to reduced shell-building due to acidification in the Gulf of Alaska. These little snails make up half the diet of the pink salmon, so their survival and the survival of Alaska’s salmon runs are intimately linked, according to Mathis’ earlier research, as reported by Scientific American. Pteropod populations in similar acidity conditions as those already seen in coastal Alaska have shown “rapid and significant shell dissolution,” according to the latest report.
In the past 200 years, global average pH has dropped by .1 units. If CO2 emissions continue as projected, the next 100 years will sink pH by another .3 units. “That’s a 300 percent change by 2100. I think that if those changes come to fruition, the oceans in general are probably going to be in trouble,” Mathis says.
Once acidity reaches those levels, there’s no turning back–at least not in a terms of time scales relevant to people alive today. “It is reversible, but not on human lifetime scale,” Mathis says. In a fantasy scenario where we halted all CO2 emissions beginning right now, it would still take hundreds of years to recover. If we emit the amount of CO2 we are projected to emit over the next hundred years, Mathis says, it will take “hundreds of thousands of years” to bounce back.
Long before then, sometime in this century, but perhaps overnight, it may be the people of Alaska who first feel the socio-economic pain of ocean acidification.
By: Zoe Schlanger
You’d think that finding far less plastic pollution on the ocean’s surface than scientists expected would be something to cheer about. The reality, however, is that this is bad news, for both the ocean food web and humans eating at the top. Ingestion of tiny plastic debris by sea creatures is believed to explain the plastics’ slow and subtle disappearance and exposes a worrisome entry point for risky chemicals into the food web.
Except for a transient slowdown during the recent economic recession, global plastics consumption has risen steadily since plastic materials were introduced in the 1950s and subsequently incorporated into nearly every facet of modern life. Annual global consumption is already about 300 million tons with no foreseeable leveling off as markets expand in the Asia-Pacific region and new applications are conceived every day.
Land-based sources are responsible for the lion’s share of plastic waste entering the oceans: littering, wind-blown trash escaping from trash cans and landfills, and storm drain runoff when the capacity of water treatment plants is exceeded. Furthermore, recent studies reveal an alarming worldwide marine buildup of microplastics (defined as a millimeter or less) from two other previously unrecognized sources. Spherical plastic microbeads, no more than a half millimeter, are manufactured into skin care products and designed to be washed down the drain but escape water treatment plants not equipped to capture them. Plastic microfibers from laundering polyester fabrics find their way to the ocean via the same route.
Given that plastics do not biodegrade, it’s been assumed that the quantity of plastic pollution measured over time on the surface waters of the ocean will mirror global plastics production and hence should be rising. However, regional sampling over time indicates that plastic debris in surface waters has been rather static lately.
Insight into where the rest might have gone emerged from an analysis of the size distribution of the remaining floating debris. From previous research it was already known that plastic fragments no bigger than a half centimeter outnumber larger debris on the ocean’s surface, a phenomenon attributed to the fact that weathering continually breaks up plastics into ever smaller fragments. Thus the scientists were surprised to find a striking paucity of debris in the one millimeter and smaller size range, the opposite of what would be expected from progressive fragmentation. This indicates that microplastics are being selectively removed from the surface.
The scientists posit that zooplankton-eating fish likely account for the loss in surface microplastics. The missing microplastics are the same size as zooplankton, thus easily mistaken for food. Furthermore, zooplankton eaters that live deep in the ocean rise to the surface at night to feed as in whales. This explanation is supported by fact that plastic debris found in the stomachs of the fish that live off zooplankton are the same size as the missing surface debris, and the same size plastics are also commonly found in the stomachs of larger fish that feed on some plankton eaters.
The number of marine wildlife species known to ingest plastic waste is already in the hundreds. In recent decades, disturbing autopsy images have surfaced in larger creatures – like whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and seabirds – illustrating stomach/intestinal blockage or perforation from ingesting often recognizable plastic items such as plastic bags, fishing line and bottle caps. However, a spate of recent studies has also documented ingestion of microplastics in the millimeter and micrometer range by smaller sea life at lower tiers throughout the ocean food web, everything from zooplankton at the web’s very base to sandworms, barnacles and small crustaceans.
One recent study finding that micrometer-sized microplastics ingested by the tiniest zooplankton show up rapidly in the intestines of zooplankton one step up the food chain underscores the potential for upward transfer of plastic debris from one tier to the next. Similarly, transfer to shore from eating common mussels which fed on microplastics is also known to occur.
Humans’ selfish fears about the take up of plastic materials throughout the food web stem largely from potential chemical threats which could be delivered up the chain. Hazardous chemicals are manufactured into various plastics, like known endocrine disruptors (e.g. phthalate plasticizers and bisphenol-A) or carcinogens (e.g. vinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants). Also, plastics are oily materials and, as such, concentrate oily contaminants from the surrounding seawater, like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and the breakdown products of the banned pesticide DDT. Researchers have shown that toxic chemicals within or on the surface of ingested plastic debris can transfer to the tissues of wildlife (e.g. seabirds), and the accumulation and even bio-magnification in wildlife as you go up the food chain when toxins are not readily metabolized is likely the greatest threat to humans.
A study finding microplastics in the soft tissues of oysters and mussels cultured specifically for human consumption, just published in the journal Environmental Pollution, is also unwelcome news for humans. The authors estimated that a shellfish lover could already be ingesting over 10,000 microplastic particles in a year.
Add to this recent laboratory evidence of tangible health consequences of ingesting chemicals associated with marine plastics. For example, altered expression of genes signaling endocrine system disruption was recently documented in both male and female fish after eating a diet containing small amounts of microplastics which had been exposed for a few months first to seawater in the San Diego Bay.
Microplastics are generally believed to represent a greater chemical threat than macroplastics because the larger relative surface area of smaller debris allows for more adsorption of toxins from seawater. Thus far, scientists have focused primarily on plastics in the visible millimeter plus size range. They express worry, however, that as plastics fragment further into the micrometer and even the nanometer range (100 times smaller than the width of a human hair), the risks to the food web could multiply, not just because of increasing surface area but also because the tinier the debris the more diverse the wildlife able to ingest it.
Scientists have not ruled out that other factors might also contribute to the disappearance of surface water microplastics, but the evidence thus far points to ingestion as the main one. For instance, plastic debris will sink once biofouling (colonization by micro-organisms) causes it to lose buoyancy, but field experiments show that defouling occurs rapidly after the debris is submerged, allowing it to float back to the surface.
Some historians already refer to the current era as The Age of Plastics. Just as runaway global warming looms as an unexpected consequence of the wanton burning of fossil fuels, the poisoning of the ocean food web could be the lasting legacy of the plastics era. Non-profit marine protection organizations, like the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, the Santa Monica-based 5 Gyres Institute and the Ocean Conservancy in Washing, D.C., are working to draw attention to the urgent need to stem the flow of further plastic debris into the oceans. There is general agreement that schemes to clean up plastic debris out in the mid-ocean are impractical, no matter how well-intended, as any after-the-fact approach is akin to trying to push back against water blasting from a fire hose. Better to turn off the deluge at the nozzle.
To fully address the global problem of plastic ocean pollution, the plastics industry must ultimately reformulate its products, though this will obviously take time. In the interim, we already know two relevant facts, that rivers are a major source of plastic waste entering the oceans and that a sizeable fraction of plastic debris at sea is eventually deposited on shorelines. Thus, directing resources now to both developing devices to capture waste in rivers before it reaches open ocean and cleaning up waste littering the shorelines makes the best sense.
Consumers can also do their part now through simple behavior changes, like using reusable shopping bags and opting for products packaged in non-plastic alternatives, like glass or paper. And of course everyone is welcome to pitch in on the annual International Coastal Cleanup. Last year, over 12 million pounds of waste were picked up by nearly 650,000 volunteers in 92 countries.
Source: Sarah Mosko
The vast majority of debris in the ocean — about 75 percent of it — is made of plastic. It can consist of anything from plastic bottles to packaging materials, but whatever form it takes, it doesn’t go away easily.
While plastic may break down into smaller and smaller pieces, some as small as grains of sand, these pieces are never truly biodegradable. The plastic bits, some small enough that they’re called microplastics, threaten marine life like fish and birds, explains Richard Thompson, a professor of marine biology at Plymouth University in the U.K.
“The smaller the piece of debris, the more accessible it is — and the wider the range of creatures that could potentially eat it,” says Thompson, who talked with NPR’s Melissa Block about his research on the effects of these tiny particles.
Thompson says limiting the damage plastics can cause to sea life doesn’t mean giving up plastic entirely. “It’s not about banning plastics,” Thompson says. “It’s about thinking about the ways that we deal with plastics at the end of their lifetime to make sure that we capture the resource.”
By recycling items like plastic bottles, he says, and then ultimately recycling those products again, what might have become harmful debris can be turned instead to better use — and kept out of the ocean.
You can hear Block’s full conversation with Thompson here: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=322959714&m=323032849
– A series of new reports are raising concerns about the damage plastic waste is doing to oceans — harming marine animals, destroying sensitive ecosystems, and contaminating the fish we eat.
The United Nations Environment Programme, as well as the NGOsGlobal Ocean Commission and Plastic Disclosure Project, released reports on Monday ringing the alarm bell about the environmental impact of debris on marine life.
Plastic waste in oceans is causing $13 billion of damage each year, according to the UNEP report, and that figure could be much higher. Worldwide plastic production is projected to reach 33 billion tons by 2050, and plastic makes up 80% of litter on oceans and shorelines.
“Plastics undoubtedly play a crucial role in modern life, but the environmental impacts of the way we use them cannot be ignored,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a press release.
Ten to 20 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, from litter, runoff from poorly managed landfills, and other sources. Once it’s in the water, plastic does not degrade but instead breaks into smaller pieces and swirls in massive ocean gyres, creating soupy surfaces peppered with the material.
Scientists are especially worried about the growing prevalence of tiny microplastics which are smaller than 5 millimeters. These include microbeads, which are used in toothpaste, gels, facial cleansers and other consumer goods. Microplastics aren’t filtered by sewage treatment plants, and can be ingested by marine animals with deadly effect.
Ocean debris isn’t just an environmental issue — it also complicated the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 earlier this year, as floating debris confused satellite images.
What can be done?
“It’s not just an ocean problem, it’s a business and a municipal issue,” Woodring said. “The ocean is just downstream of our activities. The real solution is upstream at the producer and user end.”
Governments can help solve the problem by regulating the use of plastics and creating infrastructure to recycle them. For example, dozens of nations have banned plastic bags at supermarkets or restricted their use.
That’s a “good start,” said Ada Kong, a campaigner at Greenpeace. But they can go further, she said. “Governments should enforce laws to regulate the cosmetic manufactures to label the ingredients (of consumer goods), including all the microplastics.”
The general public can also be conscious about their plastic footprint by simply purchasing goods without a lot of excess plastic packaging. People should also separate their plastic from other waste and recycle it, Woodring said.
From waste to resource
Companies that produce plastic goods have perhaps the biggest opportunity to make a difference, Woodring said. They can engage their customers with rebate or deposit programs, giving them incentives to bring back plastic for recycling.
“Everything from bottles to food packaging can be made from recycled plastic,” Woodring said. “The technology is there today to reuse it.”
His organization is hosting a “Plasticity Forum” in New York City on Tuesday featuring presentations about how to creatively reuse plastic.
Plastic isn’t just waste — it’s “a valuable material, pound-for-pound worth more than steel, and we’re just not capitalizing on it today,” Woodring said.
The new reports come on the eve of the first-ever United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, a forum for environmental ministers, scientists, and others to discuss strategies to combat climate change and other environmental problems. An ocean conference hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C. last week also focused on marine pollution.
Perhaps the greatest sign of the problem is the rapidly-growing Great Pacific Trash Patch, a massive sheet plastic and other debris that circles in a gyre across the ocean.
-Article compliments of Daojun Wu (CNN)-
The last moments of thousands of fish in the Gulf of Mexico. They are dying from asphyxiation, due to the depletion of oxygen in the water from the annihilation of phytoplankton from ocean pollution.
This isn’t a singular occurrence, this is happening all over the world! See: https://projectoceanus.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/mass-fish-deaths-millions-have-been-found-dead-all-over-the-world-in-the-past-month/
If our oceans go, we go! Stop polluting our waters!
Tell us what you think.
(video compliments of GuppyStorm photography)