Microplastics on a beach in Asia

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

Reducing the impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems in South East Asia

The MicroSEAP project seeks to understand the impact plastic has on marine ecosystems and find solutions to the problem. This could positively impact the lives of millions of people across the world and support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The problem of microplastic pollution

South East Asia has some of the highest levels of plastic pollution worldwide. There’s growing concern about the impacts of plastic litter on the health of the marine environment.

Understanding how plastics behave in the environment is at the heart of being able to assess their impact, such as the effects on fish stocks, and resilience to climate change and natural hazards. 

This programme aims to improve understanding of how plastics harm marine environments — such as mangroves, coral reefs and beaches — and the ecosystem services these habitats provide. The findings will inform the development of new approaches to reduce plastic pollution in marine environments in South East Asia.

Research aims

The project will have three main impacts:

  1. Produce a step-change in the characterisation of the plastic threat, creating a better understanding of the problem of marine plastics and related challenges. 

  2. Facilitate cooperation among Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippine researchers with UK collaborators to create an international community able to search for new bioengineered solutions from beneficial enzymes in plastisphere biofilms, building on discoveries of useful enzymes discovered during this project. 

  3. Directly address the implementation challenge of the governance of marine plastics by establishing action through policy networks in the region. 

About the project

Plastics will be collected from polluted coastal areas in the region including mangroves, beaches and coral reefs. This will improve understanding of how plastic waste affects these areas and enable appropriate solutions to be developed. 

Understanding the ‘plastisphere’ and characterising the threat 

Firstly, MicroSEAP will investigate how microorganisms living on plastic surfaces affect the pollution threat from plastics. 

We will examine the role of the ‘plastisphere’ (the combination of plastic and the microorganisms that live on it) in the breakdown of plastics, evaluating how this determines the fate of plastic waste in the marine environment and the risk it may pose to marine life.

Marine animals often become entangled in plastic waste, which can cause injury, infection and affect an animal’s ability to move and feed. Less obvious is the damage caused by microplastic ingestion. We know plastics are entering food webs when fish and marine mammals eat plastic fragments, but the effects they have on ecosystem function are not fully understood or quantified.

Discovering new enzymes that break down plastics

Secondly, the project will examine if the microorganisms that contribute to plastic degradation might provide a solution to the pollution problem.

Certain bacteria that live in the plastisphere contain enzymes that can break down plastics.  It’s thought that these specialised enzymes have evolved from eating tough plant polymers and can now break down the polymers that make up plastics.

Enzymes are therefore a promising solution to the plastics crisis. 

Naturally-occurring enzymes can be engineered in the lab to work more efficiently, as demonstrated by research at the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation. The enzymes can be used for bio-recycling of plastic, supporting the transition to a circular economy whereby plastic is repurposed into new products rather than becoming waste.

Analysing DNA in the plastisphere will help to determine which microbial candidates may have the ability to break down plastics. 

Informing policies on plastics and marine conservation

The insights generated by this research will be useful to policymakers and those responsible to managing marine ecosystems in South East Asia. Our findings will inform the development of interventions, mitigation and adaptation strategies to reduce the environmental damage from marine plastics. 

Involving policy groups and member state representatives provides a direct line for integrating research into strategic documents like the Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter as well as in respective national ministries. 

Our in-country partner networks will facilitate enhanced distribution and sharing of information among stakeholders, which can encourage community-driven actions to reduce plastic pollution. 

Related research

International collaboration

The project supports collaborations between researchers at the University of Portsmouth, the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University,  and in the wider south-east Asia region. This will enable researchers to access additional, often specific, expertise, gain new perspectives on research and build relationships with others in the field. 

The project is part of the wider programme Understanding the Impact of Plastic Pollution on Marine Ecosystems in south-east Asia (South-East Asia Plastics - SEAP). The programme started in October 2020 and will take place over three years.

Funding

Funding support from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC): £699,193.17 and $SGD1.25 million from the National Research Foundation (NRF), Singapore.

Research facilities

The Aquatic Centre at our Institute of Marine Sciences will house our study organisms.
Our Electron Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit will be used for high-magnification imaging and analysis of natural and manufactured materials.
The Centre for Enzyme Innovation will study the structure and function of molecules, chemical and bacterial compositions, and enzymes.

Researchers

Image of Professor Simon Cragg

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Professor Simon Cragg

  • Job Title Professor of Marine Zoology
  • Email Address Simon.Cragg@port.ac.uk
  • Department School of Biological Sciences
  • Faculty Faculty of Science and Health
  • PhD Supervisor PhD Supervisor
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Professor Steve Fletcher

  • Job Title Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy, and Director of the Sustainability and the Environment Research Theme
  • Email Address Steve.Fletcher@port.ac.uk
  • Department School of the Environment Geography and Geosciences
  • Faculty Faculty of Science and Health
  • PhD Supervisor PhD Supervisor
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Professor Pierre Failler

  • Job Title Professor of Economics
  • Email Address pierre.failler@port.ac.uk
  • Department Economics and Finance
  • Faculty Faculty of Business and Law
  • PhD Supervisor PhD Supervisor
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Professor Alex Ford

  • Job Title Professor of Biology
  • Email Address Alex.Ford@port.ac.uk
  • Department School of Biological Sciences
  • Faculty Faculty of Science and Health
  • PhD Supervisor PhD Supervisor
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Dr Louisa Wood

  • Job Title Research Fellow with the Centre for Blue Governance
  • Email Address louisa.wood@port.ac.uk
  • Department Economics and Finance
  • Faculty Faculty of Business and Law
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Dr Fay Couceiro

  • Job Title Reader in Biogeochemistry and Environmental Pollution
  • Email Address Fay.Couceiro@port.ac.uk
  • Department School of Civil Engineering and Surveying
  • Faculty Faculty of Technology
  • PhD Supervisor PhD Supervisor
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Professor John McGeehan

  • Job Title Professor of Structural Biology
  • Email Address John.McGeehan@port.ac.uk
  • Department School of Biological Sciences
  • Faculty Faculty of Science and Health
  • PhD Supervisor PhD Supervisor

Project partners

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