Is this actually an entirely new discovery in the sense that this was an unexpected find, or is this just another find of many showing the same trend? And what kind of time frames should I be expecting before plastics are considered biodegradable like other natural materials?
I have to admit, the idea that plastic could become biodegradable in a few decades changes my perception of their use a little and I'm not sure this is a positive thing, especially if this is something that isn't likely to happen for a very long time.
On one hand, cleaning up plastic pollution is a fantastic thing. On the other, there is a tremendous amount of carbon currently locked up in plastics which is for all practical purposes inert. Releasing that into the atmosphere is yet one more thing that will accelerate climate change.
It also will require a massive shift in our material usage. Bacteria breaking down that plastic bag in the ocean is great. Bacteria setting in on construction, medical devices, or your NES is not so ideal.
1.6% of petroleum products consumed in the US went to petrochemical feedstocks (which I'll take to be mostly plastic). Far more petroleum is just burned, and this doesn't even count coal. In terns of CO2, plastics are almost negligible.
That's a great point, and one that may make material planners think twice about using plastics over other materials like metals, woods, or plasters in their projects.
Plenty of bugs eat wood. From fungi to termites. And yet we can still use wood for construction.
I have apocalyptic dreams of plastic-eating plagues swarming our civilization out of nowhere.
During carboniferous, microbes couldn't eat lignin from wood. Now we have fungi and all sorts of bacteria (including those termites host) that can make use of it.
Oh, and time. Life is more diverse now than it was during carboniferous, but it still took millions of years for bacteria to learn how to digest lignin/wood.
My point was: whether we use GMO or not, such a thing might happen naturally.
There is also a chance that such a mutation does not offer much competitive advantage if other nutrients are easy to find, and the mutation disappears. I wouldn't bet on it though, given the number of ecological niches that exist.
Basically wood cells are hard to penetrate, don't provide a food source if they've been air dried, and even in cases where fresh cut wood isn't dried quickly, organisms don't cause enough damage to affect wood's strength. Pretty fascinating stuff.
> Deterioration Without Decomposition. When fresh-cut lumber or veneer is properly air-seasoned, the stored food materials in the sapwood are soon depleted by the respiratory processes of the wood parenchyma cells themselves. If drying is delayed, however, the fresh-cut wood can be invaded by so-called sap-stain fungi and algae, or by bacteria and molds that develop over the surface or penetrate deep into the sapwood by growing through the ray cells from one wood storage cell to another. These organisms use the contents of the wood storage cells as food and thus do not affect the strength of wood seriously; they primarily discolor the wood or alter its permeability.
When fresh-cut wood is kiln-dried immediately, the living cells of the sapwood are killed by the heat and the reserve foods are retained in the wood storage cells. If kiln-dried wood becomes wet again, these stored foods can again become substrates for growth of discoloring fungi and bacteria.
Discoloration only? But then what is rot?
Another common method is to protect the wood with a layer of plastic (polyurethane, paint, etc). That's evidently out the window...
The other way we protect wood is to acknowledge that it will get damp, and pressure treat it with poison so that mold can't grow on it.
We might have a harder time with traditional limewash. It is rather caustic and takes a long time to prepare. And while you can achieve different colors with it, it's not the uniform easy perfectness modern paints have. It also has to be re-applied periodically, so it's not as hands off.
It's a bit like gyp rock. You can buy these sheets that go up quickly and easily even for the lay person (I've built a wall). Lathe and plaster existed before that and worked well enough. It's a lot more work though.
Long-term stability of plastics means that the problems from microplastics today could still be problems in a million years. It's worse than nuclear waste in that regard: at least the hottest isotopes degrade quickly and the less hot still halve on a predictable schedule. Currently, for a lot of plastics, all you've got removing them from circultion are UV degradation and weathering processes, along with processes burying them in sediments for unknown periods.
But the microbial environment could at least confine this to be a very bad problem for our time, instead of forever.
I'm certain in 100-150 years it will be viewed in the same way.
If we want anything to change, we need systemic changes to what behavior is incentivized by the world we live in - and I can not think of anything that would do the job other than abolishing or at least heavily restraining capitalism.
What I believe he's saying is: even if it looks like bacteria may eventually begin to chip away at the microplastics problem, we still face the prospect of having them accumulate for decades or longer in bigger lifeforms and cause problems.
(But at least today's plastic releases wouldn't be a problem forever).
That is, this improves the situation greatly but doesn't remove any of the nearer term suck.
That's not really accurate - if an organism can breakdown (digest) plastic to any extent, it can do so all the way to water and CO2.
There are a few exceptions: Teflon and PVC are the main ones, but most plastic is pretty simple, and once digested it will not accumulate.
I can't breakdown most plastic to any significant extent.
If I ate small pieces of plastic, some would be excreted in poop and some would accumulate in my body.
If I ate animals that have eaten small pieces of plastic, being high up the foodchain, this may be exacerbated (biomagnification).
If bacteria learn to degrade plastic--- that may improve the situation for my grandchildren but it probably doesn't reduce how much is accumulating in marine life now that much.
Actually you can't break down plastic at all. You can just grind it with your teeth.
> If bacteria learn to degrade plastic--- that may improve the situation for my grandchildren but it probably doesn't reduce how much is accumulating in marine life now that much.
This is where your mistake lies - if you can degrade plastic at all, then you can degrade it all the way to water and CO2. There is no partial degrading here, you either can, or you can't.
(Note: I am speaking of degrading plastic for its energy content, which is what bacteria would do. Mechanically breaking plastic into small pieces is not the same thing. Nor is de-polymerizing the plastic.)
I said most plastics. Some plastics have a ton of starch bonds or are vulnerable to HCl, and can be broken down by mammalian digestive tracts. I have good enzymes to break starch bonds, and I have HCl in my stomach, so I can digest e.g. TPS to a great extent or PLA to a lesser extent.
> This is where your mistake lies - if you can degrade plastic at all, then you can degrade it all the way to water and CO2. There is no partial degrading here, you either can, or you can't.
I think you're not understanding me. One species of bacteria beginning to digest plastic all the way to water and CO2 doesn't instantly remove all the plastic floating in the ocean, let alone removing it from the marine food web where it has accumulated. It doesn't even guarantee the amount of plastic in the ocean goes down: it's easy to imagine situations where the rate at which bacteria remove plastic from the oceans is lower than the rate than it is introduced.
Therefore, even after some bacteria begin to break down some plastic, plastic can still accumulate in other organisms in the ocean. The long term prognosis is greatly improved, but things are not guaranteed to improve much at all in the near to intermediate term.
Like you said, energy reach.
That's a lot of ifs. Right now significant biodegradation of plastic by marine bacteria is still pretty unlikely. Further presuming that the bacteria capable of this will also evolve to exist within the gut of higher marine line is a bit of a leap: guts are a pretty harsh competitive environment and "random" bacteria you ingest don't go live there. And, it further presumes that all the accumulated plastic resides within the gut (it doesn't).
Where does it reside?
No one really knows what the impact of this is. Maybe it's not too bad. Maybe it is.
Some are probably toxic, but so are naturally occurring heavy metals, etc.
Or, as you put it, another find showing the same trend.
I think it would be difficult to pinpoint how long it will take for plastic to become biodegradable. Evolution is a sporadic process.
They have evolved, but there aren't a ton of them yet. It's not very surprising to me that this happened. Just consider how many times covid has mutated and then extrapolate out to how much genetic diversity is likely in play.
I do think if it were being done by humans in a lab intentionally even directed evolution would work this out in a few years. In the environment they're competing against other microbes that eat sugars and other easier to grow on stuff so I'd expect these to be a niche species.
Is there a word for it?
One of the advantages of consuming a novel food source like plastic is a relative lack of competition; this means you wouldn't expect there to be a lot of benefit for producing toxins to kill off competitors for your foodstuff.
(For an analogous case, the microorganisms that can grow on maple syrup don't tend to produce toxins; there's not much of a need when their food will kill most bacteria.)
There will never be a shipment of 90% efficient solar panels. Unlike fusion, nobody has even predicted that 90% efficient solar panels might be available in a decade.
If this is just a hyperbolic way of saying that people predict more efficient solar panels all the time -- well, yes they do. Many of those panels actually make it to market. The first terrestrial solar panel to reach 20% efficiency was introduced in 2012:
Today, a half dozen manufacturers offer modules over 20% efficiency. And the newer entrants are all doing it with simpler and more affordable cell designs than SunPower used in 2012.
It's surely not useful word if you wanted to be precise. The word bug is taxonomically vague.
So if colloquially any arthropod is a bug (which seems wrong to me) then any insect is a bug. To that end I can certainly agree that the word "bug" is a broad term and has different meanings contextually.
What I don't understand is how it is possible that bacteria could so rapidly evolve a microphone and radio transmitter. What evolutionary pressures could have caused that?
Edit: I tried googling "does anyone who studies bacteria call them bugs". The first relevant result is https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/bugs-within-u... , an article that contains: "You are full of bugs. No, not cockroaches and ants. These bugs are tiny, single-celled bacteria". The author is a "science journalist"... although, according to her resume, she does have a bachelor's degree in biology and studied something to do with an immune response gene, and worked on genetics and software for a few years. The second relevant result is https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/microbiome-survey... , whose author is also a "science journalist"... who majored in English and then went to a journalism school.
That's more than I expected to find, though still not examples of someone who actively studies bacteria referring to them as bugs.
Although, I'd expect a science writer in the field to understand that the general public doesn't use this slang.
edit: dehalogenase, not halogenase
Might as well burn them in district heaters then? Provided you catalyze/capture the non-CO2 compounds as well as possible.
> The gas-phase dioxins can be substantially destroyed using catalysts, some of which can be present as part of the fabric filter bag structure.
By which they mean bacteria. I was hoping they meant insects
I still think an editor choosing the title should have realized that "insect" is the more common interpretation, and should have chosen a less misleading word.
But, even if I'd known it was on The Guardian, context still matters, and "bug" feels like an odd choice of word in a sentence like this, where "bacteria" would be more obvious - I have to assume they've chosen "bug" as clickbait. Which has me disappointed with them :/
You replace it as you do with anything else that exists. Everything requires maintenance.
And most things do not use this plastic, so you don't need to worry.
Link to actual journal article: https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/mBio.02155-21
I bring this up because this story reminds me of the history of trees. Nowadays, if you chop a tree down and leave it there within a year or two (depending on the size of the tree) it'll basically be gone, largely due to microbes that have evolved to consume mob. They're kind of wild to look at (there are Youtube videos).
The ancestors of modern trees first appeared (IIRC) ~200-250M years ago. These apparently would've been odd to us. Small root systems that (apparently) were likely to topple over. But those microbes that now exist to consume wood didn't exist then and didn't exist for another ~60M years. This BTW is where 95% of the coal comes from.
But what must this world have been like? Did tree trunks literally just lie there for tens of thousands of years until they probably were buried? Flowering plants didn't exist either.
Anyway, I'm not sure what to make of microbes eating plastic. I mean is this a good thing? Obviously getting rid of nano-plastics would be good but what else would they do? My understanding is that the energy density of plastic is really high too. It's the same reason microbes don't eat concrete.
City Builder rule ended after the Ringworld was infected with a superconductor eating bacteria in a plot by the Puppeteers
The dense compostable plastic cutlery must demand even more processing, and/or higher heat in the compost pile. Recology’s compost piles outside of Dixon are absolutely massive, mid-size hills unto themselves. They must get pretty hot in the middle.
The fascinating thing for me is that evolution has likely produced these variants many times over the past, but now the ecology supports their argument for natural selection.
Funny short, it's on YT, but English version only incomplete.
But is there a rise of the plastivors on the horizon?
Maybe, maybe not.
That's more than the combined weight of all humans. Only about 18% of all worldwide plastic is recycled. That means that we literally are filling up the world with an entire copy of the worldwide population, in plastic, every year.
For the most widely produced plastics we have: 
Plastic Production (2015)
01 PET (C10H8O4)n 63% C 33 Mt plastic 21 Mt C
02 PE-HD (C2H4)n 86% C 52 Mt plastic 45 Mt C
03 PVC (C2H3Cl)n 38% C 38 Mt plastic 14 Mt C
04 PE-LD (C2H4)n 86% C 64 Mt plastic 55 Mt C
05 PP (C3H6)n 86% C 68 Mt plastic 58 Mt C
06 PS (C8H8)n 92% C 25 Mt plastic 23 Mt C
Greenhouse gas Emission (2019)
Carbon dioxide CO2 27% C 57,000 Mt gas 15,000 Mt C
I'd caution reading too much into the yearly rates because it's estimated that we already have produced and tossed 8 billion tons of plastic. This would all potentially be substrate to any bacterium that is able to digest it and could be freed to the atmosphere. This is still smaller than the yearly output of emissions but breaking it all down and releasing it would result in about a years worth of emissions.
I think the answer is still "yes" but it's not a concern.
If there is a decent amount, it's almost inevitable that life will find a way.
I occasionally have the chance to clear out attics etc. I do find old newspapers yellowed and more brittle, but old plastic bags also seem thinner and degraded. If they have been in the sun they literally turn to dust.
I don't think they really do last for 1000's of years, as we were once told.
OTOH, you don't know how long they take to break down. How is it that a claim they will last thousands of years is accepted by you? Who can simulate thousands of years in a lab?
1) first make tons of plastic
2) use the plastic lightly or once or until it breaks, and throw it away
3) bioengineer microbes to unmake the plastic
So a long time might turn out to be a very, very long time indeed.
Of course, this will take a lot of storage space and logistics, and at the moment it's not cost-effective because plastic is so cheap to produce, but at the same time, I (again as an amateur) see it as a long-term investment.
We're decades late with what you're suggesting. The "long-term investment" did not happen. There is no conceivable way to collect it all up now, and it's in the fossil record for the long term.
LOL, You mean like Astrophage?
Link to paper
> Jan Zrimec, also at Chalmers, said: “We did not expect to find such a large number of enzymes across so many different microbes and environmental habitats. This is a surprising discovery that really illustrates the scale of the issue.”
> The first bug that eats plastic was discovered in a Japanese waste dump in 2016. Scientists then tweaked it in 2018 to try to learn more about how it evolved, but inadvertently created an enzyme that was even better at breaking down plastic bottles. Further tweaks in 2020 increased the speed of degradation sixfold.
This is why I believe in God. The absolute "holy crap" of the system quietly upgrading itself to handle whatever we throw at it. As an engineer that's incredibly humbling.
Not only is this dangerously wrong but it’s an incredibly convenient perspective to enable someone to not deal with problems. Head in the sand.
Magic man in the sky will hotfix our fuck ups. And if millions die, that was meant to be.
In my opinion, this cripples an engineer’s thinking.
I encourage you to elaborate on what you meant if I got it wrong.
The central idea being that one of the great mysteries of life is that things tend to work out in one way another, despite all of our thrashing about. The mischaracterization of negative events being inherently "bad" (I view them as lessons or guidestones) ignores the inherent creative potential of those moments. Bugs evolving or coming into existence to compost the plastic is—as far as I see it—a tap on the shoulder saying "it's okay, try this."
A very good encapsulation of this idea is from Carl Jung and is well-explained in this book: https://www.amazon.com/Jungs-Thoughts-God-Religious-Psyches/...
This is a very deep topic and I'm happy to discuss over email: email@example.com.
Don't get me wrong - plastic pollution is a serious issue. it just seems to me that the "negativity" of plastic pollution lies in making life more difficult for humans.
Appearance of lignin surely influenced whatever forms of life existed at the time, we just don't care that much because we were not around (though carbon deposits from that time were surely useful as a source of easily accessible energy). We are born and we die in a world where lignin is biodegradable and not much of a hassle so we might be inclined not to call it "negative" even though it shares some similarities with plastics.
Things sometimes play out in our favor (like the aforementioned coal deposits providing easily accessible energy) and sometimes they don't (like the CO2 from burning all this coal pushing the chemical composition of our atmosphere outside of favorable range of parameters). I don't really see any advantage of introducing additional beings into the description (I don't think it enables us to make more accurate predictions), though I guess it could be an interesting thought experiment along the lines of the Gaia hypothesis (or the Medea hypothesis for those of more pessimistic inclinations).
I apologize if I made myself unclear or impolite - I tried my best to make this response as understandable as possible while trying to keep it reasonably short.
> What makes plastic something with a negative potential?
The human perception of it (bad aesthetics and contamination of water being the most concerning).
> I don't really see any advantage of introducing additional beings
I'm not positing God as a being nor a question of what's advantageous. It's an admission that we can't explain everything and the hole is God-shaped (again, IMO). We can observe quite a bit and form hypotheses/conclusions, but we can't go produce a perfect copy of Earth—we don't know how. Our best solution to a "backup Earth" at this point is to terraform Mars which is just manipulating an existing reality we didn't create. My general point being: something of superior intelligence had to produce the reality we're living in (irrespective of the form that intelligence takes).
I’m very guarded about the idea of “the system can correct to handle whatever we throw at it” because that makes it trivially easy to say “we don’t need to worry because it’ll sort itself out!” That’s dangerous, in my opinion.
God as “positively charged energy” piques my interest. Thanks for the link.
If I believe that God built the world, and I'm beholden to try and understand the will of God, then science is the only way of doing so. To believe that God clicked their fingers and willed everything into existence as it currently is, belittles the complexity of His/Her creation and belittles the deity too. I have no problem with science, evolution, biology etc - either it originated from entropy or it originated through design. What kicked everything off right at the start is almost a mute point - either way, we need to understand the systems that govorn the reality we're living in.
My current understanding leads me to believe that the Universe can't possibly exist. You can't create a Universe out of nothing. But here it is and here we are.
I wouldn't think about it too much. It will make your head spin.
Which begs the question: why limit ourselves to one guy in a robe when we can have a couple dozen of them pushing planets around? :-)
: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%... and forward.
You might as well say "well, if the sky is blue, then who invented the color blue?". Nobody, it's just a name we give to a random light wavelength.
Maybe it poses a question, maybe it raises a question, but it certainly does not beg the question. Question begging, dating back to Aristotle (who personally coined the phrase) is an informal fallacy that means assuming the conclusion. I expect you may know it as a circular argument. A simplistic example may be, "this car goes fast because it is a fast car."
The more you misuse language, the more you dilute the meaning of its words. Stop doing that, please. It's bad enough as it is with so many misunderstanding each other. Your cooperation is bagel. See? Now you have me doing it!
I did not assume a conclusion when I asked that question.
There is a profound "Turtles all the way down" problem even confined to fully rational discussion of the matter.
I'm not assuming that it applies, those are just the best tools I have at my disposal for understanding right now. I patiently await the monolith that changes that (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHWs3c3YNs4).
Put simply, (maybe) life that does not evolve gets out competed and dies out.
I actually think that's the logical conclusion.
In the abstract, we can say that some form of evolution is going to occur whenever you have imperfect replication. That is the only criteria needed, and the "rules" emerge naturally such a start.
You could ask, ok, why DNA based molecules and while not definitive, we have models around how their chemical precursors could become available in conditions similar to earths ancient past.
You could ask why did earth have such conditions, and the answer is something like: many planets could have similar conditions, and given the size of the universe regardless of how common such conditions, one might expect them to arise like earth's somewhere.
Ok, then you might ask what causes the universe have the types of stellar conditions and planetary formations and similar, to which we have cosmological models that generate these conditions from early energy states after the big bang.
Ok, so then you ask what created the big bang, or the universe as whole? We don't have a great answer. But understanding how evolution itself comes to be doesn't require such a leap if we are will to accept an earlier starting point and start examining phenomenon from there.
You're driving at some sort of god thing, but that's actually unrelated. Sure, you can make the argument that the universe was created by something else, but however the universe got created, one bit of emergent behavior from it is the process of evolution.