Interactions Between Plastic Debris, Persistent Organic Pollutants and Microorganisms in Ocean Surface Waters

EPA Grant Number: FP917433
Title: Interactions Between Plastic Debris, Persistent Organic Pollutants and Microorganisms in Ocean Surface Waters
Investigators: Bryant, Jessica A
Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
EPA Project Officer: Packard, Benjamin H
Project Period: September 1, 2013 through August 31, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Marine Sciences


Microorganisms are likely important players in the lifecycle of plastic debris that reaches marine environments. The aim of this research is to uncover what types of microorganisms are colonizing plastics in marine surface waters and whether they differ from free-living and natural particle-associated strains typically identified in the ocean. This research also will investigate how plastic-associated microbes obtain nutrients and energy and if and how plastic-associated microorganisms are degrading plastic or persistent organic pollutants commonly bound to plastic particles.


Field surveys will be used to observe naturally forming plastic-associated microorganisms and controlled incubation experiments to observe the chemical processes mediated by these microbes. Community genomic and transcriptomic sequencing techniques will be used to characterize microbial communities. Community genome sequencing (metagenomics) uncovers the identity of microbes and provides a “parts list” of the genes these microbes can utilize to survive. Community RNA sequencing (metatranscriptomics) uncovers which microbes are active within a community and what genes they are expressing and therefore likely using.

Expected Results:

The chemical structure of plastics greatly differs from natural marine particulate matter and therefore plastics likely are creating new and unique niches for microorganisms in the ocean. It is hypothesized that the microbes found on plastic particles will be taxonomically and functionally distinct from free-living and natural particle-associated marine strains. Microorganisms have been observed degrading types of plastics in several environments, so it is likely that this will be similarly observed. It is predicted that the degradation process will vary, depending on nutrient concentrations in the water.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection
This work will deepen the understanding of the microorganisms that colonize plastics in marine systems. This may help material scientists engineer more ecofriendly plastics that can be readily biodegraded in the marine environment. This work will increase the understanding of the lifecycle of plastic debris when it enters the ocean. This information is fundamental to developing better informed plastic pollution management and policy decisions.

Supplemental Keywords:

marine microbial ecology, plastic pollution

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2014
  • Final