Friday June 14, 2024

University of Nevada, Reno

Polluted rivers and lakes worldwide are host to a new and evolving population of microorganisms and bacteria that have made their home on plastic waste. This new trash-loving ecosystem, dubbed the ‘plastisphere’, is causing everything from water oxygen depletion to potential disease introduction and is altering the overall health of large river systems, according to research published in the August 2024 issue of the journal, Water Research.

“Rivers provide a broad array of ecosystem services, like supplying drinking water and irrigation for growing crops to supporting inland fisheries that hundreds of millions of people use for food resources,” Veronica Nava, a scientist at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the study’s lead author, said. “Our study is one of the first to go beyond describing the small organisms growing on the different plastic materials polluting our world’s waterways to show that they are changing the cycling of nutrients in the river and are causing a dramatic reduction of oxygen in the river system. These changes impact a river’s health and ability to support biodiversity within its ecosystems.”

A consortium of research institutions analyzed the plastisphere of the Lower Mekong River system in Cambodia – one of the world’s most diverse and productive rivers. By monitoring several impacts to the rivers’ health, they found that thriving populations of bacteria living on the surface of plastic waste were significantly altering overall water quality and impacting ecosystem services, especially in areas with mismanaged waste. Additionally, the researchers observed the presence of potentially pathogenic organisms which could have implications for human health, though more analysis is necessary.

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