For coral reefs, the threat of climate change and bleaching are bad enough. An international research group led by Cornell University has found that plastic trash – ubiquitous throughout the world’s oceans – intensifies disease for coral, adding to reef peril, according to a new study in the journal Science, Jan. 26.
“Plastic debris acts like a marine motor home for microbes,” said the study’s lead author, Joleah Lamb, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell. She began collecting this data as a doctoral candidate at James Cook University in Australia.
“Plastics make ideal vessels for colonizing microscopic organisms that could trigger disease if they come into contact with corals,” Lamb said. “Plastic items – commonly made of polypropylene, such as bottle caps and toothbrushes – have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria. This is associated with the globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.”
When plastic debris meets coral, the authors say, the likelihood of disease increases from 4 to 89 percent – a 20-fold change. The scientists estimate that about 11.1 billion plastic items are entangled on reefs across the Asia-Pacific region, and that this will likely increase 40 percent over the next seven years.
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Image via Kathryn Berry, James Cook University