Somethings, it’s tough to figure out what you’re about to eat for dinner. Joanie and I had that experience in 1986 when we decided to trek the Himalayas along the Mount Everest trail from Lukla to a Buddhist monastery at Thyangboche, about 13,000 feet high in the Himalayas. Passang, our Sherpa guide, was supported by a cook and three young Sherpa girl porters who carried our gear over the mountain trails on their backs and heads.
The trip was fantastic. But, there was a problem with the food. Passang bought most of our food from trekker-suppliers – tins of trail food left over from Everest treks. The trekkers were “international,” from all over the globe. And Passang couldn’t read Polish, Japanese, French, German, Dutch, or any of the other labels on the food tins, and neither could we. So, for the first few days, we’d be as apt to be served hot, canned pineapple as we would cold chicken-ala-king. Each toasty, well-cooked food tin opening was a surprise – but, rarely a delight. It didn’t take long for Joanie to tell Passang that enough was enough. From then on, we ate what the Sherpas ate. And it was wonderful.
I couldn’t help think about our experience as I read the February 20, 2016 issue of Science News, and its article, Floating Fortresses of Microbes. The article begins:
“Oceanfront property doesn’t come cheap. Except, perhaps, for some seafaring microbes. Steady streams of tiny plastic pieces making their way into the ocean give microbial squatters a place to take up residence. Each plastic home comes equipped with a solid surface to live on in an otherwise watery world. These floating synthetic dwellings and their microbial inhabitants have a name: the plastisphere.”
We’ve known for years that a lot of plastic gets dumped into the ocean. Recent estimates are that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing about 268,000 metric tons are bouncing on the waves of the seven seas. Although there’s a garbage patch of plastic in the Pacific about the size of Texas, that isn’t where most of the plastic is. Most of the plastic pieces are tiny “micro-plastics,” less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) in size, and they’re everywhere. These tiny floating islands have become homes for a wide variety of microbes. Since the micro-plastics transport their microbe cargo over the waves, their microbes become “invasive species” inhabiting foreign seas not accustomed to their presence; and fish and birds and animals who feast in those seas take in a lot of micro-plastics transporting microbes that are not normally a part of their diets.
Thus, not only have a lot of micro-plastic pieces worked their way into our food chain, but so have a lot of “foreign” microbe species. What the scientists tell us, is that the plastic is not digested and is pooped back to the sea. Some researchers are beginning to think that the plastic, which floats and doesn’t sink to the ocean’s bottom, increases the amount of CO2 pumped into our atmosphere, but the science is in its early stages.
However, the microbes that are transported on micro-plastics into new waters could be causes of disease in fish and humans and other forms of life. There’s good reason to conclude, for example, that a coral pathogen that has injured and killed coral reefs from the South Pacific to the Caribbean has been transported on the platform of micro-plastics from ocean to ocean. And “vibro,” dangerous to humans and animals, has been found in highly concentrated amounts on micro-plastics in a few studies.
The article concludes:
“The plastisphere, created by human trash fouling the oceans, seems to offer a wealth of opportunity for microbes — a chance to eat well and, possibly, see the world. Scientists are just starting to uncover the complexities of this new ecosystem. With all the variables that can shape microbe communities on ocean plastics, says Amaral-Zettler, it’s hard to say what to expect.”
So, as Joanie and I were in for some surprises about what we were about to eat on the trek in the Himalayas, we may all be in for some real surprises when our scientists finally figure out what’s in the tasty dish we’re having for dinner tonight. In the meantime, Joanie and I will continue to enjoy our tilapia and grouper, but we will be sure that the cooking is a little more “well-done.”