Stem Cell Therapy: The Future of Medicine?
Introduction: What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
A Brief History of Stem-Cell Therapy
Stem-cell therapy is a method used to treat or prevent a particular type of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, leukemia or other conditions. By definition, stem cells are cells that are able to develop into different types of cells. This is unlike your current cells that can only divide to produce cells of the same type (i.e. skin cells divide to produce more skin cells and cannot become heart cells). There are two main types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells which are taken from a 3- to 5-day-old embryo called a blastocyst and adult stem cells which are found in certain tissues (i.e. bone marrow) as well as in the umbilical cord blood.
The history of adult stem cell research began in the 1950s when researchers discovered that bone marrow contained two kinds of stem cells. The first is called hematopoietic stem cells that divide to form each type of blood cells in the body. The second is called bone marrow stromal stem cells. These stem cells can repair bone, cartilage, and fat cells that support the formation of blood and fibrous connective tissue. It is a part of a small proportion of the stromal cell in the bone marrow. In 1981, scientists discovered ways to derive embryonic stem cells from early mouse embryos. This led to a discovery in 1998 that allowed scientists to derive stem cells from human embryos and grow them in the laboratory. Cells used in early research were called human embryonic stem cells that were created for reproductive procedures such as in vitro fertilization. In 2006 a new type of stem cell called an induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) was made by researchers to identify conditions and genetically reprogram some specialized adult cells to create a stem cell-like structure (Steckelberg, 2014).
Current Applicability of Stem Cell Therapy
Arguments and Controversies against Stem Cell Therapy
Today, doctors can harvest stem cells from the blood of a newborn’s umbilical cord, reducing the controversy as previous stem cells were taken from aborted fetuses. Note: When you are born, you are given the option of having your stem cells harvested and stored for your future use. Not only can stem cells be used to treat disease, they are also being used to screen new drugs. Newly discovered medications are tested for safety on differentiated cells generated from human stem cell lines. Other kinds of cells such as cancer cell lines have also been widely used to test anti-tumor drugs. Screening new therapies on stem cells reduces the use of animal testing and also provides more optimal testing conditions as stem cells replicate the exact conditions of a living human treatment much more effective than do mice
The Future of Stem Cell Therapy
Mature cells found either in an adult or child, are programmed to be a particular kind (i.e. skin, muscle, nerve, etc.) and when they divide, they can only become that kind of cell. This makes it difficult to replace or repair certain kinds of cells in the body. This is where stem cells come in. Stem cells serve as an internal repair and replacement system in our body. Stem cells divide to generate replacement cells within organs such as the brain, heart, and lungs with the potential to remain a stem cell or become a new type of cell with a more specialized function (Sheen, 2015). In people where certain tissues or organs have gone awry, stem cells can be used to completely replace the organ or tissue, relieving them of their disease. A common example of this is the treatment of leukemia (a disease whereby the development of blood cells doesn’t occur correctly) through bone marrow cell therapy.
Stem cell research enables scientists to learn about the cells’ beneficial properties, discover and screen new drugs, study normal growth and identify causes of birth defects and disease. To treat disease, stem cells are programmed to become a specialized type of cells, such as heart muscle cells, blood cells or nerve cells. These specialized cells can then be implanted into a person to treat a certain disease such as congestive heart failure whereby the heart cells can’t beat strongly enough. Stem cells can also be used to grow organs such as kidneys or livers, the potential is endless. Best of all, these are your cells so there’s no chance of rejection post surgery. Note: Rejection post surgery results from the body not recognizing the cells that have been inserted into it. As a result, the immune system believes them to be invaders and kills them.
Many opponents of stem cell research state that harvesting embryos for stem cells is immoral and should not be allowed under any circumstances. To them, an embryo is a human and destroying it is an act of murder. They believe that an embryo constitutes life and has the potential to develop fully into a human being. They believe it is immoral, unnatural and unethical to destroy a person's life just to save another. Furthermore, many religious groups condemn embryonic stem cell research on similar grounds. Other arguments against embryonic stem cell research cite that adult stem cells are already successfully being used and therefore, there is no need to regress back into embryonic stem cell territory.
Fears regarding unexpected outcomes and the effects of stem cell usage on the environment continue to rise. Many think that although the benefits of stem cell therapies are enormous, risks must also be considered. One concern is the passing of viruses. Recipients of stem cells may inherit viruses or other microscopic agents that can cause disease, (Murnaghan, 2015).
As the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking put it, “Stem cell research is the key to developing cures for degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease from which I and many others suffer.” The current benefits of stem cell therapy are well documented, and continued research is expected for new treatments. Stem cell therapy offers hope for those suffering from serious diseases and we’ve barely scratched the surface. In the future, we could be using 3D printers to produce organs that cannot be rejected (as they are the patient’s cells). This would save thousands who die while waiting on the organ transplant list. These 3D printers would use stem cells for ink. We could eliminate the need for drug testing on animals or humans, simply testing them on stem cells until they were ready for the public. We could regenerate brain cells in those suffering from dementia and other degenerative diseases. The possibilities are endless and the future is bright.
“Stem cell research can revolutionize medicine, more than anything since antibiotics” – Ron Reagan
Reading Comprehension Questions:
Reading Comprehension Questions: Answer Key
1. What are stem cells? Stem cells are cells that are able to develop into different types of cells.
2. What are the two types of stem cells and where are they found? Embryonic stem cells are taken from a 3- to 5-day-old embryo called a blastocyst and adult stem cells that are found in certain tissues (i.e. bone marrow) as well as in the umbilical cord blood.
3. What were the stem cells called that were used in early human research and what were they used for? Early human research was done on embryonic stem cells that were created for reproductive procedures such as in vitro fertilization. 4. Can a skin cell divide to produce a muscle cell? Explain. No, mature cells are programmed to be a particular kind.
5. Provide an example of a stem cell treatment. The treatment of Leukemia (a disease where the development of blood cells doesn’t occur correctly) through bone marrow cell therapy.
6. Why aren’t stem cells rejected by your body post surgery? They aren’t rejected because they are your own cells and therefore, the body doesn’t think they are invaders to destroy.
7. Why are stem cells used to screen new drugs? Why is this preferred method of drug testing? Newly discovered medications are tested for safety on differentiated cells generated from human stem cell lines. Screening new therapies on stem cells reduces the use of animal testing and also provides more optimal testing conditions as stem cells replicate the exact conditions of a living human.
8. What are the arguments against stem cell research? Many opponents of stem cell research state that harvesting embryos for stem cells is immoral and should not be allowed under any circumstances. To them, an embryo is a human and destroying it is an act of murder. As well, recipients of stem cells may expose themselves to viruses they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. 9. What is your view on stem cell research? Reference different parts of this article to support your claim. Your answer needs to be detailed and as in-depth as possible. Aim for 1-2 paragraphs.
Bethesda, K (2013, October 18). Stem Cell Information. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from
Mattes, B. (2011, June 8). Adult Stem Cells Provide Miraculous Treatments. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from
Murnaghan, I. (2015, December 15). Concerns about Stem Cells. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from http://www.explorestemcells.co.uk/concernsaboutstemcells.html
Sheen, J. (2015, June 17). Stem Cell Basics. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from
Steckelberg, J. (2014, January 8). Stem cell transplant. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from
Stem Cell Research Quotes. Retrieved January 7, 2016, from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/stem_cell_research.html
1. What are stem cells?
2. What are the two types of stem cells and where are they found?
3. What were the stem cells called that were used in early human research and what were they used for?
4. Can a skin cell divide to produce a muscle cell? Explain.
5. Provide an example of a stem cell treatment.
6. Why aren’t stem cells rejected by your body post surgery?
7. Why are stem cells used to screen new drugs? Why is this preferred method of drug testing?
8. What are the arguments against stem cell research?
9. What is your view on stem cell research? Reference different parts of this article to support your claim. Your answer needs to be detailed and as in-depth as possible. Aim for 1-2 paragraphs
We have 19 years in the business of helping teens thrive in the classroom.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenage girl who became a global beacon for women’s rights, delivered the following speech before the United Nations Youth Assembly on 'Malala Day', to celebrate her 16th birthday.
Malala's Speech to The Un Youth Assembly
Dear friends, on 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.
I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. And my dreams are the same. Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learned from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.
Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns. The wise saying, "The pen is mightier than the sword." It is true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. This is why they killed 14 innocent students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they kill female teachers. That is why they are blasting schools every day because they were and they are afraid of change and equality that we will bring to our society. And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist why are the Taliban against education? He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said, "a Talib doesn't know what is written inside this book."
They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would point guns at people's heads just for going to school. These terrorists are misusing the name of Islam for their own personal benefit. Pakistan is a peace loving, democratic country. Pashtuns want education for their daughters and sons. Islam is a religion of peace, humanity and brotherhood. It is the duty and responsibility to get education for each child, that is what it says. Peace is a necessity for education. In many parts of the world, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, terrorism, war and conflicts stop children from going to schools. We are really tired of these wars. Women and children are suffering in many ways in many parts of the world.
In India, innocent and poor children are victims of child labor. Many schools have been destroyed in Nigeria. People in Afghanistan have been affected by extremism. Young girls have to do domestic child labor and are forced to get married at an early age. Poverty, ignorance, injustice, racism and the deprivation of basic rights are the main problems, faced by both men and women.
Today I am focusing on women's rights and girls' education because they are suffering the most. There was a time when women activists asked men to stand up for their rights. But this time we will do it by ourselves. I am not telling men to step away from speaking for women's rights, but I am focusing on women to be independent and fight for themselves. So dear sisters and brothers, now it's time to speak up. So today, we call upon the world leaders to change their strategic policies in favor of peace and prosperity. We call upon the world leaders that all of these deals must protect women and children's rights. A deal that goes against the rights of women is unacceptable.
We call upon all governments to ensure free, compulsory education all over the world for every child. We call upon all the governments to fight against terrorism and violence. To protect children from brutality and harm. We call upon the developed nations to support the expansion of education opportunities for girls in the developing world. We call upon all communities to be tolerant, to reject prejudice based on caste, creed, sect, color, religion or agenda to ensure freedom and equality for women so they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back. We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.
Dear brothers and sisters, we want schools and education for every child's bright future. We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education. No one can stop us. We will speak up for our rights and we will bring change to our voice. We believe in the power and the strength of our words. Our words can change the whole world because we are all together, united for the cause of education. And if we want to achieve our goal, then let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge and let us shield ourselves with unity and togetherness.
Dear brothers and sisters, we must not forget that millions of people are suffering from poverty and injustice and ignorance. We must not forget that millions of children are out of their schools. We must not forget that our sisters and brothers are waiting for a bright, peaceful future.
So let us wage, so let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.
Short Answer Questions
How did you feel while you read/watched Malala Yousafzai Speech to the UN?
What does Malala believe about people’s rights?
What is the main message in Malala’s speech to the United Nations?
Malala says, “They thought the bullet would silence us, but they failed.” What does she mean by this?
Who is Malala speaking for?
Why does she mention martin Luther king Jr. and Nelson Mandela?
Why does she believe so strongly in Non-Violence?
What other parts of the world does Malala speak about and why?
What is she asking the world leaders to do?
How did the United Nations respond to her speech?
1. Research a list of women who are working today to address social problems 1. in your local community 2. The United States, and 3) other nations around the world. What do you find most admirable about these women and why? Prepare a short video presentation in which you highlight at least 4 of theses women.
How well do you handle stress?
Can you recall feeling restless, having trouble sleeping, being irritated and moody? There was probably something exciting (good or bad) going on in your life that you were stressed about. Stress is literally a reaction of your body to a challenge – any challenge or demand at all. In daily life, people use the word stress to state that they feel overwhelmed and/or not in control. It is usually related to an unhealthy and undesirable state of mind. Whether this is true depends on the duration of the stress response.
Evolutionarily speaking, experiencing stress in the short-term (acute stress) was used to keep us alive. It causes a quick activation of the ‘flight-or-fight’ response which is very helpful in dangerous situations or when you need to accomplish something challenging. Good examples of this are when you need to lift a car off your child or when you need to fight a bear. In both cases, many people experience what they feel to be superhuman strength. In reality, they are utilizing stress through the fight or flight reaction. But when you experience stress for too long it becomes chronic (long-term and recurring), and that causes numerous negative effects for you brain and body.
Did you know that having chronic stress (and therefore having chronic exposure to these stress hormones) also has an impact on the size, structure and functioning of your brain? The brain contains a lot of stem cells that evolve into specific types of cells when they mature. Studies have shown that chronic stress has the ability to flip a switch in these stem cells turning them into a type of cell that is different from their original destination (Lupien et al., 2009). This causes your brain to change in a way that is not according to how your DNA intended.
The overproduction of the stress hormones has three important consequences (Chetty et al., 2014; Davidson & McEwen, 2012).
It increases the activity in the Amygdala - the fear center of your brain. High levels of cortisol create a hard-wired pathway between the Amygdala and Hippocampus, which creates a brain that is in a constant state of ‘flight-or-fight’. MRI scans show that the Amygdala increases in size in cases of chronic stress.
It lowers the activity in the Hippocampus. The Hippocampus is the center for learning, memorizing, handling emotions and stress control since it regulates the HPA axis activity. Stress lowers the development of new brain cells and MRI scans also show that some areas actually shrink.
It decreases the activity in the Prefrontal Cortex. This is the center of decision-making, concentration, judgment and social interaction. Some areas in the Prefrontal Cortex also shrink a little under continuous high levels of stress.
And the journey continues inside your brain…
The three stress hormones that are released are: Cortisol, Adrenaline, and Noradrenaline. These hormones travel through your bloodstream and come in contact with each cell in your body. Adrenaline and Noradrenaline prepare the body for a flight-or-fight response, which you can feel by an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. It disappears from your body when the situation is over. Cortisol flows through your body all day and causes a variety of effects. To summarize: During a stressful situation, your body increases the available energy and prepares for changes in your environment like an attack or use of strength/speed (Lupien et al., 2007). The activation of the HPA axis is a basic mechanism in response to change but a continuous activation presents some serious health risks to your body. First of all, because long-term high blood pressure will increase the risk of developing diabetes, hypertension, and diseases. Secondly, the activation of the HPA axis suppresses the immune functions, tissue repair, the growth of new cells and digestive functions. Therefore, long-term exposure to stress can be damaging to your body.
Grey and white are all that matter
Maybe the shrinking and growing of areas in the brain sound a bit odd. Although it can be argued that the brain is like a muscle, your head won’t increase or decrease in size depending on the amount of exercise. Within the brain, it is all about activity. Let’s dive a little deeper into how this works.
When people refer to the brain, they often talk about the ‘grey matter’. This grey matter consists of densely packed nerve cell bodies (neurons) that do the thinking, computing, and decision-making. But all these cell bodies are connected with each other through axons (or network cables) that cover almost half of the brain volume. This communication network of axons has a distinctive light color and is therefore called ‘white matter’. A consequence of continual exposure to stress hormones results in a decrease in the number of cell bodies. Some of the existing ones die or show almost no activity and fewer new ones are made. The overall activity of the grey matters lowers and the same goes for the white matter. The axons die or become inactive, and fewer new axons are being developed. The decrease in cell bodies and axons within the Prefrontal Cortex and Hippocampus will result in problems with learning, memorizing, stress control and decision-making amongst other things.
How about the reverse button?
Many studies claim that the structure of the brain is largely determined during childhood. This means that young people who have been exposed to high levels of stress (for example because of too many radical changes, dangerous situations or a lack of nurturing) may develop life-long anxiety issues, mood disorders and/or learning difficulties (Hanson et al., 2015). Although most researchers agree with this statement, there is a growing amount of research about the activity in the grey and white matter that shows that the adult brain is actually able to change for the better if you work on reducing stress (Schlegel et al., 2012; Davidson & McEwen, 2012).
Getting your brain back on track
The brain is a dynamic organ that evolves during your lifetime. Therefore, changes in the Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Prefrontal Cortex are reversible although it gets more difficult to do so as you age. Although stress itself is a physical phenomenon with neurological implications, it all starts with the individual’s perception of feeling out of control. This is the key to reversing its effects. It may sound simple but a lot of research has shown that meditation is a great way to reduce the production of stress hormones. Mindfulness, cognitive training, and physical exercise are proven to be the best ways to get back in control of your life.
Describe the vicious circle of the growing Amygdala and the experience of stress.
Describe how the different parts of your brain can shrink or grow.
Describe how your body can also benefit from stress.
What is, in general, the cause for releasing the stress hormones in your body?
Describe the HPA Axis.
What is the most important difference between Cortisol on the one hand and Adrenaline and Noradrenaline on the other hand?
What is the function of the Hippocampus?
What is the difference between your white and grey matter?
What are some examples of high-stress situations experienced by young people?
What can you do to reverse the negative effects of chronic stress on your brain?
Chetty, S., Friedman, A.R., Taravosh-Lahn, K., Kirby, E.D., et al. (2014). Stress and glucocorticoids promote oligodendrogenesis in the adult hippocampus.Molecular Psychiatry, 19, p. 1275-1283
Davidson, R.J. & McEwen, B.S. (2012). Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, 15, p.689-695.
Hanson, J.L., Albert, D., Iselin, A., Carré, J.M., Dodge, K.A. & Hariri, A.R. (2015). Cumulative stress in childhood is associated with blunted reward-related brain activity in adulthood. Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 5.
Lupien, S.J., Maheu, F., Tu, M., Fiocco, A. &Schramek, T.E. (2007). The effects of stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition. Brain and Cognition, 65, p. 209-237
Lupien, S.J., McEwen, B.S., Gunnar, M.R. & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the the lifespan of the brain, behaviour, and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, p. 434-445.
Schlegel, A. A., Rudelson, J.J. &Tse, P.U. (2012). White matter structure changes as adults learn a second language. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24(8), p. 1664-1670.
Climate Change: What you should know?
Introduction: What Is Climate Change?
Directions: Read the passage below and complete the questions that follow.
What’s happening with the climate now? Why are we concerned about it?
Isn’t climate change supposed to be a natural process as evidenced by history? As stated above, it does occur every 100,000 years and humans haven’t been around that long. While there is truth to the cyclic nature of climate change, a point has come in history when these changes are no longer natural, but anthropogenic, meaning humans are directly responsible for the current climate change. One of the most significant effects we have on our environment is our large quantity of greenhouse gas emission, mainly carbon emissions. How does this influence our temperature? It all comes down to the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide, ozone, nitric oxide, water vapor, and many other chemicals are called greenhouse gasses. They have the ability to absorb thermal infrared waves (heat energy) - a wavelength of light that we can’t see. When these gasses accumulate in the atmosphere, they tend to trap these light waves and reflect them back to the earth, therefore causing the surface temperature to rise. Under normal circumstances, the greenhouse effect is vital for our survival as it’s a natural process that keeps the Earth warm enough for life. However, when humans enhance the greenhouse gas effect,global warming occurs.
How do we know that our CO2 emissions are going into the atmosphere and causing these problems? Using different technologies to measure CO2 levels from hundreds of thousands years ago until the modern-day, scientists have collected data that indicates a sharp rise in CO2 levels after the industrial revolution. This is not just a coincidence; the industrial revolution not only marked the advancement of modern-day technology, but also the start of an era of uncontrolled fossil fuel usage (fossil fuels are fuels found naturally in the earth like coal, oil, and natural gas that are formed from decaying organisms over millions of years). Another way we contribute CO2 to the atmosphere is through deforestation. Plants are great CO2 sinks, meaning they are able to absorb atmospheric CO2 to grow and perform photosynthesis (creation of sugar from water CO2 and sunlight). We have caused considerable environmental damage through deforestation. 32 million acres of rainforest are chopped down per year and this has two effects. First, the CO2 stored inside the trees is released into the atmosphere (Scheer, 2012). Second, the trees are no longer able to perform photosynthesis by absorbing the CO2 and therefore, more is left in the atmosphere.
The level of CO2 is measured in parts per million (ppm), or how many CO2 molecules exist in a sample of one million molecules of air. Dating back 400,000 years ago, the levels of CO2 increased and decreased, but never exceeded 300 ppm. Yet in the last few centuries, CO2 levels have steadily skyrocketed to our present day value of 403.28 ppm (Global Climate Change, n.d.). To put things into perspective, the rate of current warming is 8 times faster than ice age recovery warming (Lindsey, 2010).
The unequivocal evidence is accompanied by a slew of modern-day consequences. Sure, a 1.4◦F increase in temperature might seem miniscule, but in retrospect, the difference in global temperature between glacial and interglacial ages is also just a few degrees (Palfreman, 2000). Today, the result of this temperature difference is observed in the rising sea levels as the arctic glaciers melt, extreme weather events occur across the globe, and oceans are undergoing acidification, just to name a few (Shaftel, 2016). Dire consequences are associated with each event. Melting of the glaciers not only threatens the polar species’ habitats but also increases darker land surface area (ice which reflects light melts to expose the darker, non-reflective ground), which is more prone to absorb heat. This positive feedback event (the previous event increases the severity of the next and so on) of increasing landmass ends up warming the planet (Palfreman, 2000). Extreme weather patterns such as increased droughts and intense rainfalls can pose challenges to agriculture, and cause famine and floods in many areas of the world. Acidification of the ocean endangers marine organisms that produce calcium carbonate shells or skeletons by reducing their ability to synthesize calcium related structures—diminishing coral reefs is the perfect example
Short Answer Questions
1. How often do ice ages usually occur? 
2. Why is the global temperature increasing? 
3. According to the passage, climate change is a natural process. What is the anomaly with our current temperature change? 
4. Identify the discussed consequences of global warming? [4 pts]
Consequence of Global Warmin (Write 4 points)
5. Using context clues define the following words: [1pt]
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Plastics in the Ocean
Introduction: What you should know about plastic?
Early in the movie Finding Dory, the lovable blue tang gets caught in a plastic six pack ring, a problem that she barely notices. Dory just keeps swimming. But that little piece of trash represents an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic that have found their way to the ocean (Parker 2015a). With serious implications for the health of marine life and humans.
Plastic is dangerous to ocean wildlife. With associated impacts on the fishing industry, we should all be worrying like Marlin when it comes to the accumulation of plastic in the ocean.
What is plastic?
You probably see and use plastic every day, but you may not know what it actually is. Plastics are synthetic, meaning that they are man-made; they are not found in nature. Most plastics are made from oil or natural gas which provide the organic, or carbon-based, compounds that make up each piece of plastic. The individual molecules of the organic compound are called monomers. Plastics are made of chains of monomers called polymers. The process of making plastics is called polymerization (Nobelprize.org 2007).
Where does ocean plastic come from?
When plastic escapes collection systems, it is referred to as ‘leaking’. An estimated 32% (8 million metric tons) of plastic leaks every year and ends up in the ocean. This is the equivalent of dumping one garbage truck into the ocean every minute (Project MainStream 2016). Plastic debris includes household items like bags, cups, and bottles; industrial products like plastic sheeting and hard hats; and fishing gear like nets, buoys, traps, and lines. Pieces smaller than 5 mm are called Microplastics include large pieces that have broken down and items like the microbeads found in some cosmetics (NOAA 2016).
discarded fishing equipment, but by far the majority of it comes from land. Beach litter gets washed out to sea and inland litter makes its way to the ocean via streams and rivers (Parker 2014). In developing countries, illegal dumping into waterways is also a significant contributor to ocean debris because it is cheaper than regulated refuse management. These countries also often have open dumps that do not control for leaking because their infrastructure has not kept pace with economic growth (Ocean Conservancy 2015). Although ocean plastic is a global problem, the vast majority of it comes from developing nations, with 80% originating in rapidly growing Asian countries (Project MainStream 2016).
Where does ocean plastic go?
For a long time, scientists only measured the plastic that floated on top of the ocean but more recent studies have shown that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The actual amount could be as much as 20 – 2,000 times greater than what we can see (Parker 2015b).
Large amounts of surface plastic have collected in five gyres, or swirls of ocean currents. These collections of plastic are called ‘garbage patches’ and are found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Parker 2014), although the name is misleading. The patch is not one massive island of trash, as you might imagine, but a large area of the ocean with individual pieces floating in it. Some areas have a more noticeable build-up of plastic while in others; the trash is not easily observed. Because it is dispersed and because the shape of the patch changes with wind and ocean currents, it is difficult to measure how large the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is (NOAA 2016a). However, it has been estimated that it contains 480,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer (Parker 2014). Plastic has also been found in the deep ocean and frozen in Arctic ice, and fish eat a large amount of the debris that invades their watery homes (Parker 2015b) . But the real answer to ‘Where does ocean plastic go?’ is ‘Nowhere.’ Plastic is not biodegradable, which means that it does not decay through the actions of living organisms (Dictionary.com 2016). It doesn’t rot. It will remain in the same form for hundreds of years before breaking down into smaller pieces of plastic. But it never goes away. The Law of Conservation of Mass tells us that mass cannot be created or destroyed (Sterner et al. 2011). Unless the plastic is physically removed from the ocean, it’s there forever
Unfortunately, it turns out that marine life loves eating plastic. A study on perch found that even when food was abundant, the fish would eat massive quantities of plastic. Perch who had eaten plastic lost their ability to smell predators, making them very vulnerable. Widespread plastic consumption could lead to large drops in population, which would devastate not just that species but disrupt the entire ecosystem (Hanson 2016).
Eating plastic has also been linked to liver cancer, endocrine dysfunction, and reproductive problems in fish (Ocean Conservancy 2016). The problem is only made worse by the fact that plastic soaks up other pollutants in the water, becoming even more toxic and more dangerous to the animals who eat it. And the danger extends to the animals who eat those fish, including humans. Human health is affected (Hanson 2016) as is the fishing industry, which employs 55 million people around the world (Ocean Conservancy 2016).
However, much more will have to be done to stem the tide of plastic flowing into the world’s oceans. Human plastic consumption is expected to double in the next twenty years and if left unchecked, experts predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (Project MainStream 2016).
Short Answer Questions
What are polymers?
What is the process of making plastics called?
How much plastic leaks into the ocean each year?
What is the largest ocean garbage patch called?
What does biodegradable mean? Are plastics biodegradable?
How long does plastic stay in the ocean and why?
Name three problems fish develop after eating plastic.
How does plastic in the ocean affect humans?
Which country was the first to ban single-use plastic bags?
One possible solution to this problem is the creation of biodegradable plastics. How and from what are they made and what problems might there be with this solution?
What is bioaccumulation and how does it relate to the problem of plastic in the ocean?
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