Microbial hitchhikers: The “Plastisphere”

Published 2020-01-03

Image: Figure 4 of Schlundt et al. (2019)

Studying the microscopic world is a challenging task and requires the use of innovative visualization and genomic tools to understand the role and function of the diverse microbial players in an ecosystem. Using culturing, staining, and sequencing methods, researchers can gain a more detailed view of the microbial world. Recently, detailed in a study published in the journal Molecular Ecology Resources, researchers developed a new method called CLASI-FISH (“combinatorial labeling and spectral imaging fluorescence in situ hybridization”) to visualize the spatial distribution of different types on microbes on drifting marine microplastics. This technology uses fluorescent-labeled probes which attach to specific microbial targets and actively fluorescence when viewed under a laser-scanning confocal microscope.

Researchers used this innovative technology to understand the “Plastisphere”, a term authors coined to describe the microbial ecosystem of biofilm hitchhiking on marine microplastics. Many marine organisms have been documented ingesting plastics, causing severe health problems and death. In addition, these floating plastics could potentially act as a vector for transferring microbes across the ocean, but little is known about the types of microbes found on plastics. They found members of three phyla present on microplastics - Proteobacteria, Cyanobacteria, and Bacteriodetes – which were heterogeneously distributed. This work provides a new look at the microbes living on microplastics and provides a way forward to study microbial succession and community structure.

Watch a video summary of this study below!

Study reference:

Schlundt C, JLM Welch, AM Knochel, ER Zettler, LA Amaral-Zettler (2019) Spatial structure in the “Plastisphere”: Molecular resources for imaging microscopic communities on plastic marine debris. Molecular Ecology Resources 00:1-15. DOI 10.1111/1755-0998.13119