VORTEX : In the Horizon 2020 project VORTEX, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sear Research investigates the degradation of (micro)plastics in marine environments, from estuaries and coastal areas to offshore seas and the deep ocean. NIOZ (the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research) biogeochemist and microbiologist Helge Niemann – who heads the team – received a prestigious ERC grant (worth 2 million euro) to find out how the process of microbial degradation works in the ocean. One of the key unknowns in this field is the ‘survival time’ of (micro)plastics in the ocean. Another puzzle is that only a fraction of the plastic garbage turns up at the surface. It is known that large part is consumed by seabirds and (lager) sea animals, but this alone cannot explain the ‘missing plastics problem’ – the sinking mechanism by the diatoms is a possible explanation.
Niemann and his colleagues from NIOZ are identifying plastic-eating microbial species and measure their rate of degradation. In their lab they feed a countless number of natural marine species with isotopically labelled plastics, so that they can trace them. When they find a plastic-eater, they look at the environmental circumstances in which the degradation occurs. Does it happen more quickly in warm conditions? Can it also happen in an oxygen-free environment?