Plastic pollution in the ocean may harbor new antibiotics

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Plastic pollution in the ocean could serve as a source for new antibiotics, according to new research.

Many environmentalists point to plastic pollution in the ocean as a significant and growing problem, pointing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and how not even the Far North can escape the global threat of plastic pollution. Another serious, though seemingly unrelated, issue is the global health threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

These disparate issues come together in new research, where scientists have found that ocean plastic pollution could be a source of new antibiotics that may be effective against antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

Plastic pollution in the ocean could serve as a source of new antibiotics, according to a new study led by students in collaboration with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The research will be presented at the American Society for Microbiology conference in Washington, DC, June 9-13, 2022.

Scientists estimate between 5 and 13 million tonnes of plastic pollution enter the oceans every year, ranging from large floating debris to microplastics on which microbes can form entire ecosystems. Plastic debris is rich in biomass and therefore could be a good candidate for the production of antibiotics, which tends to occur in highly competitive natural environments.

To explore the potential of the plastisphere as a source of new antibiotics, the researchers modified the tiny earth citizen science approach (developed by Dr. Jo Handelsman) to marine conditions. The researchers incubated high and low density polyethylene plastic (the type commonly seen in grocery bags) in water near Scripps Pier in La Jolla, California for 90 days.

Researchers have isolated 5 antibiotic-producing bacteria from ocean plastic, including strains of Bacillus, Phaeobacterand vibrio. They tested the bacterial isolates against a variety of Gram-positive and negative targets, finding the isolates effective against commonly used bacteria as well as 2 antibiotic-resistant strains.

“Given the current antibiotic crisis and the rise of superbugs, it is essential to seek alternative sources of new antibiotics,” said study lead author Andrea Price of National University. “We hope to expand this project and further characterize the microbes and the antibiotics they produce.”

This project was part of a STEM education project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Meeting: Microbe 2022

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