Putting Microbes to Work for Us

civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.
– H.G. Welles

It took life on Earth millions years to figure out how to digest cellulose, the hard wall that makes up the cells of plants, efficiently to get at the energy inside it. In fact, complex lifeforms, such as Cows and Termites, have to take the indirect route of enlisting bacteria in their guts to digest the cellulose for them.

In one of the many many many asides he takes in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson talks about plastics being made of hydrocarbons found in oil and natural gas. Although plastics are non-biodegradable, there is a great deal of energy still stored in those hydrocarbons, just waiting for the right lifeform to evolve along and start consuming them.

There is now a continent-sized vortex of the Pacific Ocean swimming with plastic junk. Sea turtles and birds are mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, ingesting them and dieing. Plastic particles are accumulating in the food chain, appearing, undigested, in the feces of seals and other animals.

Fallen Trees from the Tunguska Event

Plastic Bag Tree
Credit: spike55151

In his book, The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton fictionalizes a microbe that mutates to eat rubber. Today, numerous scientists and companies are engineering microbes to eat plastic, or more precisely, microbes with the ability to break down plastics to get at the bounty of hydrocarbons locked up within them.

Companies, like Verde Environmental and WonderChem, produce solutions of microbial cultures that eat oil, slowly. Recently, 16-year-old Daniel Burd, of Waterloo, recently isolated the microbes that eat plastic bags as a Science Fair project, earning him a $10,000 prize and $20,000 scholarship. His discovery may reduce the time it take to degrade plastic bags to just three months. A shovel-full of soil from anywhere on Earth contains millions of the oil-eating Pseudomonas bacteria. It’s just a matter of encouraging these microbes to be fruitful and multiply

The Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play at this point. Algae-like bacteria live in both diesel and biodiesel fuel, clogging up the engines they contaminate. Organisms like these have all ready ruined a large amount of Earth’s underground petroleum, leaving sulfer and methane as byproducts. A quick look at all the modern conveniences requiring plastics that we rely on give us a hint as to the pandora’s box we might be dabbling with here, meaning we might end up needing microbes to clean up the microbes.

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…





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