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"...being predictive, being right about the future, is not the point of any given story or novel. The point is about exploring as wide a range of possibilities as possible."
- Peter Watts

Plastic-Eating Bacteria  
  Mutated bacteria able to 'eat' or dissolve rubber and plastic.  

A tiny organism appears to have been brought back from the region of space nearest the Earth.

"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."

From The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1969
Additional resources -

Here's what it's like when bacteria eats plastic unexpectedly.

...the post team had heard transcripts of the flight transmission between the Phantom [jet] and Topeka Central. For the most part it was dull, except for the final moments before the pilot crashed.

The pilot had said: "Something is wrong."

And then, a moment later, "My rubber air hose is dissolving. It must be the vibration. It's just disintegrating into dust... Everything made of rubber in the cockpit is dissolving."

A similar scenario forms the basis for the 1971 novel Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler:

"In the shaft leading to the [ventilation] grille a mindless, groping mass of malodorous corruption was thrusting its way silently towards the surface. Buoyed up by bubbling foam it steadily rose. Single units in an obscene abrogation of normal order divided and made two. Two became four and four, eight. Endlessly supplied with food, each unit absorbed nutrient and in a soft, ancient certainty fulfilled its only purpose - to multiply, to extend and to multiply...

"In the Coburg Street control room of the London Underground system,there was a full emergency... In a dozen tunnels, trains ground down to a halt. Hordes of terrified commuters made their way anxiously along dark, musty tunnels to the lights and safety of the next station. There were minor explosions, fires, and the failure of a million wires andcables. As the dissolution of plastic proceeded and accelerated in rate,the elegant order of the system gradually turned into complete chaos.

"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 , basements and factories. Traffic lights failed, causing irresolvable jams.... The breakdown of plastic spread into BroadcastingHouse.... A gas main with polypropylene seals on its pressure regulatorserupted into flame.... Plastic cold-water pipes softened, ballooned, andburst, 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."
(Thanks to Winchell Chung for mentioning this.)

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Andromeda Strain
  More Ideas and Technology by Michael Crichton
  Tech news articles related to The Andromeda Strain
  Tech news articles related to works by Michael Crichton

Plastic-Eating Bacteria-related news articles:
  - Amazonian Fungus Eats Polyurethane
  - Bacteria Eats Plastic; What Could Go Wrong?
  - The Plastic Eaters - Amazon Fungus Lives On Plastic

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Mini-Brains In A Dish
NASA's Prototype Lunar Greenhouse For Mars And Moon
Researchers Say 'Biohybrid Robot' - Clarke Said 'Biot'
Unique DNA To Foil Parts Counterfeiters

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