The paradox of constant oceanic plastic debris: evidence for evolved microbial biodegradation?

Ricard Solé, Ernest Fontich, Blai Vidiella, Salva Duran-Nebreda, Raúl Montañez, Jordi Pinero, Sergi Valverde

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Abstract

Although the presence of vast amounts of plastic in the open ocean has generated great concern due to its potential ecological consequences, recent studies reveal that its measured abundance is much smaller than expected. Regional and global studies indicate that the difference between expected and actual estimates is enormous, suggesting that a large part of the plastic has been degraded by either physical and biotic processes. A paradoxical observation is the lack of a trend in plastic accumulation found in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, despite the rapid increase in plastic production and disposal. In this paper we show, using mathematical and computer models, that this observation could be explained by the nonlinear coupling between plastic (as a resource) and an evolved set of organisms (the consumers) capable of degrading it. The result is derived using two different resource-consumer mathematical approaches as well as a spatially-dependent plastic-microbial model incorporating a minimal hydrodynamical coupling with a two-dimensional fluid. The potential consequences of the evolution of marine plastic garbage and its removal are outlined.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Jun 2018

Keywords

  • plastic debris
  • microbial loop
  • nonlinear population dynamics
  • ecosystem engineering

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