Microbial transformation of plastics in SE Asian seas: a hazard and a solution

Lead Research Organisation: University of Portsmouth
Department Name: School of Biological Sciences

Abstract

This project aims to reduce the impact of marine plastic pollution in South East Asia by understanding how microorganisms living on plastic surfaces affect the pollution threat and by exploring the potential of these microorganisms to provide a solution to the problem. SE Asian seas receive outputs from five of the top ten global emitters of plastic debris but there is little understanding of the threat to ecosystems and 650 million humans living in the region posed by 'plastispheres', the term used to describe the combination of plastic and the microorganisms that live on it. We need to characterise the microorganisms living on plastics in the sea and explore how they affect the breakdown of plastic. Through this we will understand how microorganisms transform plastic surfaces and determine the ultimate fate of plastic detritus in the marine environment. We need to measure the impact these plastispheres have on marine environments and wildlife in order to accurately characterise the hazard posed by plastispheres, and not just plastics, to the region's ecosystems. We will search for solutions to removing plastics and grow an informed and connected community of regional stakeholders in order to reduce environmental damage by current and future plastic pollution.

This project coordinates the expertise of researchers from Singapore, UK, Indonesia,the Philippines and Vietnam to carry out laboratory and field experiments on microbial colonisation and transformation of plastic. We will analyse the DNA of biofilms and use microscopy to measure plastic degradation to identify the microorganisms living on the plastics and how they affect the plastic breakdown. We will quantify the volume, type and location of plastisphere loads in key habitats and animals to measure the impact plastispheres have on selected coastal ecosystems - mangroves, coral reefs and beaches. We will direct enzymes discovered in biofilms for use in bioengineered recycling, helping the transition towards a circular plastics economy in which waste plastic is intercepted before it enters the sea and is converted into useful products. We will coordinate with regional policy organisations and action groups to grow an informed and connected community of plastic stakeholders. We will conduct workshops to share expertise, disseminate our ideas and engage with stakeholders in order to develop solutions applicable to the SE Asian region. The project will give a novel perspective that shows how the threats from marine plastic are mediated by microorganisms, facilitating innovative solutions and enhancing regional governance of marine plastic pollution.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description BOTTLE Consortium 
Organisation U.S. Department of Energy
Department National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at Portsmouth brings expertise in the structure of plastic degrading enzymes and shares activities with the US National Renewable Energy Lab related to enzyme engineering and lab assays of enzyme efficacy. CEI contributes to seminars, and are active as co-authors and as partners in funding applications.
Collaborator Contribution CEI was the first non-US entity to be invited to join this consortium. Membership brings frequent high-level expert seminars and annual meetings about latest research on plastic recycling and upcycling. The Consortium links key academic and governmental partners with business and NGOs and facilitates expertise-linking for the Portsmouth team.
Impact Eight shared publications in 2021 to early access 2022. This work involves molecular biologists, structural biologists, enzyme biochemists, organic chemists and process engineers.
Start Year 2021
 
Description CABI-CEI 
Organisation Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We have initiated discussions with CABI over compliance with the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing of the Convention on Biological Diversity over microbial enzyme discovery activities in the microSEAP project. We described the sort of biodiversity information that will be generated in the microSEAP project and the sorts of regulatory issues that that have been raised in agreements with our partners in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore.
Collaborator Contribution CABI (cabi.org) visited Portsmouth to follow up on the discoveries about plastic digesting enzymes the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) in the University of Portsmouth. Through this they became aware of the microSEAP project and realised that they could assist with scientific exchanges between the partner countries, particularly those who participate in CABI activities. The established links between CEI and their specialist in compliance with the Nagoya Protocol.
Impact Established an initial framework for working together and identified the issues that we intend to address together.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A segment of Earthshot Series 1:5 Build a Waste-Free World highlights work at University of Portsmouth on plastic recycling after segment on marine plastic pollution. Transmitted on BBC2 in Nov 2021.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Interviews with microSEAP project collaborators including Reza Cordova used in popular article on marine plastic pollution 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Warren Cornwall prepared an article for Science entitled The plastic eaters. This drew upon extensive interviews with UK and SE Asian collaborators in the microSEAP project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.science.org/doi/full/10.1126/science.373.6550.36
 
Description Southampton International Boat Show 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk by a microSEAP project team member in support of a fund raising effort by four rowers to raise awareness of global marine plastic pollution
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description UK-Russia Online Forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Participation in a forum promoted and facilitated by the British Embassy in Moscow on tackling climate change: the role of university science in developing practical solutions. The solution highlighted was enzymatic recycling of plastic waste.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021