New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge

Can Plastic-eating Microbes Eliminate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Team: 7

School: Annunciation Catholic School

Area of Science: Biology


Interim: Can the Great Pacific Garbage Patch be Eliminated with Plastic-eating Microbes?

Team: 7

School: Annunciation Catholic School

Area of Science: Biology

PROBLEM
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a gyre (vortex) of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean. It's size is hard to measure but project SEAPLEX of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found 100 out of 100 samples taken along a 1700 mile stretch at different depths contained plastic. They found most of the plastic is in the form of tiny confetti-like pieces that increased in density as the sampling depth increased. The existence of the GPGP represents a danger to wildlife from both ingestion and entanglement as well as a possible danger to humans from the introduction of organic toxins into the human food chain (Amanda Briney).

Our initial project idea was to introduce plastic-eating microbes to the GPGP to see if it could be eliminated. During the research phase, we discovered that plastic-eating microbes are already present on the plastic pieces in the GPGP (Gwyneth Dickey Zalkab). Our goal is to calculate and model the digestion of plastic in the GPGP to eventually answer whether the rate of plastic digestion is greater than the rate of new plastic being introduced into the GPGP.

RESEARCH
We have researched the characteristics of the GPGP, some of the characteristics of the plastic-eating microbes and environmental impacts of oceanic plastic pollution. We need more information on the plastic-eating microbes such as rate of plastic digestion, characteristics at various ocean depths/temperatures, etc. Also, we need to know if the plastic-eating microbes have predators that would affect the population model.

MODELING
We chose NetLogo as our modeling and simulation tool running on a Windows/PC platform. Utilizing concepts from a number of existing NetLogo models found in the Models Library within the Biology folder, we constructed a model consisting of two types of plastic (represented as patches) a single type of plastic-eating bacteria (represented as an agent) along with the ability to introduce a bacteria-eating parasite (represented as an agent) that consumes the bacteria.

Employing the Turtle Shapes Editor found under the Tools tab, new shapes were created to represent the bacteria and parasites. We track the quantity of both types of plastic, bacteria and parasites. The model enables the user to explore how the tracked quantities depend on the initial quantities of bacteria, parasites, growth rates of plastic types, energy gained from consumption of plastics, and energy required for bacteria multiplication.
 
We are beginning the simulation phase of the computation where we will chose different combinations of adjustable attributes and run multiple simulations while capturing statistical metrics for the resulting tracked quantities of plastic1, plastic2, bacteria and parasites.

EXPECTED RESULTS
We expect that the GPGP cannot be completely eliminated by the plastic-eating microbes, however, the growth of the GPGP can be slowed significantly.

Gwyneth Dickey Zalkab, Marine Microbes Digest Plastic, Nature, doi:110.1038/news.2011.191

Amanda Briney, Trash Islands, geography.about.com

Karl Burkart, Boy Discovers Microbe that Eats Plastic, mnn.com

Wikipedia, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, en.wikipedia.org

5th International Marine Debris Conference, Honolulu, HI, March 20-25, 2011, 5IMDC.org

Andreana Nourie
Megan Thomas
Thomas Curtin
Moira Donnelly
Grace Maynard


Team Members:

  Thomas Curtin
  Moira Donnelly
  Grace Maynard
  Andreana Nourie
  Megan Thomas
  Nam Nguyen

Sponsoring Teacher: Mary Sagartz

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