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Bacteria Eats Plastic; What Could Go Wrong?

Bacteria that can eat (biodegrade) plastic have been discovered by a teen-aged science fair contestant. Daniel Burd may have figured out a way for humanity to take care of the five hundred million plastic bags tossed into landfills and the ocean every year.

Burd had an idea; what if nature had already solved this problem? What if there was a microorganism that could do the job? With this question in mind, Burd collected soil samples from landfills and started feeding the bacteria contained therein a constant diet of ground up polythene bags.

He found that a combination of Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas bacterial types worked the best together; he estimates that a complete degradation of a polythene bag could take as little as three months.


(Plastic bag floats just under the surface - Canary Islands)

Plastics are a new trick that humans have played on the environment; if no organisms exist to decompose them, it is estimated that plastic bags and bottle will last for at least 400 years. Even then, the small bits or molecules of plastic may remain much longer.

As soon as I heard about this discover, I started to worry. Bacteria that can eat plastic has already been discussed by science fiction writers, and it's not all good news.

In The Plastic Eaters, Gerry Davis and Kit Pedlar wrote about a biological time bomb that could destroy necessary infrastructure.

"On the surface, in the freezing December air, the smell of the rotting plastic began to hang permanently in the air. A cloying, wet, rotting smell similar to the smell of long-dead flesh. It filled streets and homes, basements and factories. Traffic lights failed, causing irresolvable jams.... The breakdown of plastic spread into Broadcasting House.... A gas main with polypropylene seals on its pressure regulators erupted into flame.... Plastic cold-water pipes softened, ballooned, and burst, flooding into shops, homes, and restaurants.

"Slowly and inexorably, the rate of dissolution increased; failures occurred in increasing succession until, within forty-eight hours, the centre of London had become a freezing chaos without light, heat, or communication."

Earlier still, Michael Crichton wrote about it in his 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain.

"the organism...Mutated to a noninfectious form. And perhaps it is still mutating. Now it is no longer directly harmful to man, but it eats rubber gaskets."

"The airplane."

Hall nodded. "National guardsmen could be on the ground, and not be harmed. But the pilot had his aircraft destroyed because the plastic was dissolved before his eyes."
(Read more about Crichton's plastic-eating bacteria)

Let's hope that these plastic-eating bacteria can be kept in the landfills, where we need them.

Via Dissolving the plastic bag problem; thanks to Winchell Chung for the tip and a reference on this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/11/2008)

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