The scientists from the University of Sheffield and Britain's Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science said they've shown the combination of marine microbes that can grow on plastic waste varies significantly from microbial groups that colonize surfaces in the wider environment.
That, said researcher Jesse Harrison from the University of Sheffield, raises the possibility plastic-associated marine microbes have different activities that could contribute to the breakdown of the plastics or the toxic chemicals associated with them.
"Plastics form a daily part of our lives and are treated as disposable by consumers," Harrison said. "As such, plastics comprise the most abundant and rapidly growing component of man-made litter entering the oceans."
But, he added, over time the size of plastic fragments in the oceans decreases as a result of exposure to natural forces. Tiny fragments of 5 millimeters or less are called "microplastics" and are particularly dangerous, Harrison said, since they can absorb toxic chemicals that are transported to marine animals when ingested.
The researchers, led by Sheffield University senior lecturer Mark Osborn, presented their findings Sunday during a meeting of the Society for General Microbiology in Edinburgh, Scotland.