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Glowing Bugs May Lure Fish in the 'Plastisphere'

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Image: SEA Education Association scientist Greg Boyd holds recovered foam floats containing invertebrates and microbial biofilm.
SEA Education Association scientist Greg Boyd holds recovered foam floats containing invertebrates and microbial biofilm. New research being presented at the Ocean Sciences Meeting delves deeper into the role microbial communities living on plastic marine debris play in the ocean ecosystem.Erik Zettler / SEA

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Bits of plastics floating in the ocean have become home to glowing microbes that appear to diabolically lure fish into eating them. The ruse may allow the tiny bugs passage to fish guts where they grab nutrients essential for survival in what scientists have dubbed the "plastisphere."

"We have inadvertently created a completely new habitat in the ocean with all of this plastic debris," Tracy Mincer, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told NBC News. "This stuff didn't exist there over 40 years ago."

Mincer is part of a cadre of scientists who last year discovered a community of microbes has evolved to thrive on the plastic trash that collects in giant whirlpools spinning around in the oceans, such as the Pacific garbage patch and the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic.

He and colleagues discussed their ongoing research Monday at the American Geophysical Union's Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu.

While the community of bugs in each of the garbage patches has a degree of unique regional diversity, all of them contain an abundance of disease causing microbes known as Vibrios, which, for example are the source of cholera.

Mincer and his colleagues have noted that some of the plastic also glows and it is known that certain species of Vibrio glow. While yet to be proven, the team hypothesizes that glowing Vibrios attract fish and other visual ocean denizens, which in turn leads the bugs to nutrient-rich guts.

The hypothesis is one of several avenues of research Mincer and colleagues are pursuing as they explore life in the plastisphere. "Here we have this big experiment, right?" he said. "I mean, a bunch of plastic has been dumped into the ocean. Now, how is the microbial community adapting?"

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