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Plastic is toxic to the world's oceans, but corals find it tasty

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The vibrant marine organisms that splatter the deep depths of the ocean with a myriad of colors may actually enjoy eating garbage.

It sounds antithetical, but, according to new research conducted at Duke University, corals could be eating plastic because it tastes like food. This challenges conventional wisdom that some marine life, like sea turtles, mistakenly eat plastic because of its resemblance to jelly fish.

Dan Rittschof, a professor at Duke University and co-author of the coral study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, said the oil used to make plastic contains anywhere from 53 to 153 compounds that make it taste like food.

"Originally I thought the flavor would come from the organisms living on the surface of the plastic. It never occurred to me that plastic is a commodity. It's made from oil, and it contains flavors that leach out."
Dan Rittschof, Norman L. Christensen Professor of Environmental Sciences at Duke University

During the feeding trials, the Duke research team fed the corals chunks of plastic about the size of rabbit food, which shed light on an interesting discovery. Rittschof noticed that the corals ate the plastic "as fast as a coral can move." To put it in perspective, the research team shared a 30-second video showing just how long it takes for a coral to consume a piece of plastic.

A coral polyp ingesting a plastic particle

At first glance, it may be difficult to figure out what's going on in the video. But in the upper portion of the clip, viewers can clearly see a coral firing its nematocysts, or spear-like tentacles, to actively catch and eat the plastic. After the corals ate the plastic, the research team would wash off the corals and put them in a new tank. What they found was that the corals actually spit out some of the plastic.

Corals eat plastic
A white fleck of plastic is engulfed by a coral polyp

"So if you think about it, chewing gum loses its flavor," Rittschof added. "So when the plastic didn't taste like food anymore they spit it out."

But not all the plastic was spit out--only about 10 percent of the plastic stayed in the coral's gut. Though Rittschof said it's too early to decisively conclude the impact of plastic consumption on these marine organisms, he did note that there could be other unintended consequences.

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"Coral is a foundational species. If coral eat plastic and it doesn't come out, and the fist eat coral, then they're eating plastic."

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Those traces of plastic could even continue up the food chain ladder to include humans. If fish eat the coral that eats plastic, then that inadvertently\ means that humans could also be consuming plastic when eating seafood.

Corals, which have a primitive nervous system, aren't capable to critically think about the materials they ingest like humans can, so Rittschof made a very relatable comparison to leaving plastic water bottles in the heat.

"If that's a BPA bottle, that happens to be an environmental estrogen you're tasting. Because he way that plastic is made, it's not very stable in warmer conditions. So it breaks down, it gives you back flavor. And, now, you may not find that particular flavor very attractive, but if you can taste it you know it's biologically active. So that's the kind of thing I think the anemones are doing, is they're taste the molecules that are in the water."

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Plastic is a growing concern for environmentalists. Check out these other Circa stories:
Plastic pollution isn't only in the world's oceans. It's also in the water we drink.
A 23-year-old college dropout has big plans to rid the oceans of plastic waste
Mr. Trash Wheel has collected over a million pounds of garbage from the Baltimore Harbor

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