Perturbing microbes

I can’t remember when I first heard about the bacteria that could eat plastic. I now know that they were first discovered in 2004 so it could have been at any point in my adult life. But it was only relatively recently that I began to get impatient. I was reading headlines, and sometime the actual articles, about the mountains of recyclable plastic, the big lie of recyclable plastic, and the pervasive omnipresence of microplastics.

It felt like I was existing in two different worlds. One with plastic eating bacteria, and one without. Thank a higher power (or a commissioning editor) that we have exactly the article I needed to read. Why aren’t they just dumping plastic in a vat full of bacteria? They are! But only in France, and only certain kinds of plastic that has been through a certain kind of preprocessing. Why isn’t all of out plastic rotting away? Because the bacteria aren’t that successful at what they do. When will we have pills we can wash down with a swig of cherry Dr Pepper that will release these bacteria into our guts to clear away the accumulated crust of microplastics? Probably no time soon, based on the dose of reality this article gives.

It is impressive how well the article seemed to anticipate my own questions.

Aside from the market problem, there is also a legal one. Once a microbial species has been genetically engineered, almost every country restricts its release back into the wild without special permission – which is rarely granted. The reasons for this are obvious. In the 1971 science fiction story Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater, a virus with the ability to instantaneously melt plastic spreads across the world, knocking planes out of the air and collapsing houses. It is unlikely any plastic-eating bacteria would become that efficient, but perturbing microbes can have devastating consequences.

‘We are just getting started’: the plastic-eating bacteria that could change the world by Stephen Buranyi