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Bugs are evolving to eat plastic (nationalobserver.com)
266 points by gmays 29 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 240 comments

I feel like I've been reading this story for well over a decade at this point. On one hand this is great news and I would think almost inevitable with enough time, but as layperson on this subject plastic eating microbes still fall into the category as nuclear fusion and anti-ageing medicine -- something just around the corner, but always a decade or so away.

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.

It's a mixed bag and I'm not sure which side wins out.

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.

> there is a tremendous amount of carbon currently locked up in plastics which is for all practical purposes inert


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.

> 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.

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.

> over other materials like (...) woods,

Plenty of bugs eat wood. From fungi to termites. And yet we can still use wood for construction.

Some woods like cedar are more resistant. Some kinds of ash are more or less susceptible to beetle damage. It all depends of the application and environment, just like plastics might in this scenario.

The scary one is medical devices. Plastics were a godsend, enabling the mass production of disposable medical equipment that effectively solved a lot of tricky sterilization problems. There are a lot of other things that plastics are the best option for, we would suffer a fairly major technological set back if we were suddenly faced with a plague of plastic eating microbes.

Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis overwrite compellingly, if the Goodreads excerpt is representative.

If these ideas interest you, check out Andy Weir's book Project Hail Mary. I can't clarify why without spoilers.

For those of us interested in the spoiler, could you tell us behind a link? (perhaps pastebin.com)

That's very interesting! Thank you for sharing.

Having read that book fairly recently, I only see a weak link at best. It is worty a read though.

There's also a link to a plot element of The Andromeda Strain by Crichton.

Yeah, it is kind of funny that plastic crap we make functions as a decent long-term carbon sink. Stable, resistant to degradationIf only we could properly bury it without it getting everywhere, including in our internal organs.

I have apocalyptic dreams of plastic-eating plagues swarming our civilization out of nowhere.

Feels like nobody considers that these could make plastic much less durable. If we create them they should be unable to survive at all outside extremely specific conditions so they can't spread.

Oh, they will certainly evolve to eat plastic by themselves at some point. Some already do.

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.

Every time I rake leaves or clean up after my plants, I think of the sheer amount of trash that plants create, from discarded leaves to flower petals. We’re fine with it of course because something figured out how to eat the trash.

I think that's a key point: you need to leave enough trash that it's evolutionary interesting to make use of that resource. It needs to provide a competitive advantage. Not sure we're here yet, though some environments like dumps could cross that threshold.

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.

carboniferous, that period didn't have CRISPR. We could give that evolutionary path a little push along if we like.

I'd rather we didn't mess with that stuff. You can't uncreate a microorganism, we have no realistic way of controlling them (see under MRSA) and our world is made of plastic. I'd rather not have it fall apart because some lab assistant made an oopsie.

Sure, that's something to consider before releasing stuff like this in the wild, especially if it can mutate and start attacking something else.

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.

I'm sure microbes will learn to eat plastic eventually. But if we don't mess with it, they have plenty to eat already, so the pressure to specialize on plastics is low, and we have plenty of time to live our happy lives before that becomes a real problem. But now we have tools to accelerate these processes greatly. And there's a real potential for us to screw ourselves up - and we are way not advanced enough to un-screw-up ourselves if that happens. We're like a person living in a paper city who discovered fire, but doesn't know yet how to make anything fire retardant. It's not a good place to try stuff just to see what'd happen.

Instead of the grey goo apocalypse everyone worried about with nanites, we'll have a green apocalypse.

Why is this not a problem with wood? We have learned how to protect wood from microbes. We will learn the same thing for plastic as well.

It took a long time for fungi to evolve to consume wood (bacteria too). It took 60 million years for this evolution to take place. Sounds like plastic might be on a faster track according to this article.

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.

Source: https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/pdf1984/kirk84a.pdf

"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."

Discoloration only? But then what is rot?

The linked text is titled "Biological Decomposition of Solid Wood". It's pretty fascinating, and also covers destructive decomposition mechanisms.

FWIW, we avoid this problem with wood by pressure treating the wood with poisonous chemicals, so mold and other organisms can eat it.

Another common method is to protect the wood with a layer of plastic (polyurethane, paint, etc). That's evidently out the window...

I thought the way we prevent wood rot is keeping moisture away, painting it is one way to prevent moisture away

That is a common technique I mentioned. Most paints and finishes we use on wood are in the plastics family. So if microbes can eat plastics, that line of defense becomes a lot weaker.

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.

I don't think we'll have a huge problem in general but things will become less convenient. Water based paints any consumer can buy at any point and use without worrying too much and get decent results in any color you name are great.

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.

Biodegradable or not means much less than it sounds like, if micro- and nano- plastics still bioaccumulate in animals disrupting their endocrinology

> Biodegradable or not means much less than it sounds like

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.

Companies will just create bacteria resistant plastic and continue to fuck us

And nature (maybe with our hand) will catch up. It's playing cat and mouse with a mouse that stands still once the plastic is produced.

"and continue to provide what we want", you mean? It's not the companies that are the (sole) problem.

I don't know. For a while the major toothpaste companies were putting plastic beads in toothpaste as grit. I would say that's a company issue.

It's the 21st century version of lead in makeup.

I'm certain in 100-150 years it will be viewed in the same way.


The problem is the system. You can expect one or two persons to act rational, but at the scale of 100s, 1000s, millions, it's just crowd dynamics following statistical processes, just as the market itself is.

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.

Biodegrade does not mean "chew up into tiny pieces" it means chemically break down. Biodegraded plastic would end up being much simpler molecules, probably CO2 and methane mostly.

Single celled organisms don't have endocrine systems, if they are able to break plastics down and metabolize them, then that's the end of those big thorny molecules.

It is with complete ignorance that I'm asking this, but isn't it the case that, at a molecular level, plastics are just like any other material? That they can be broken down to such a point that their molecular composition no longer matters, and they are, once again, "raw" molecules by which other things (even living things) can be composed? What does "accumulation" even mean in that context?

Anything can be broken down, but many things are effectively stable in the environment-- including in organisms-- for nearly forever, because nothing breaks them down or the rate of degradation is low enough that it doesn't matter.

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.

> we still face the prospect of having them accumulate for decades or longer in bigger lifeforms and cause problems.

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.

> 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.

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.

> I can't breakdown most plastic to any significant extent.

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.)

> Actually you can't break down plastic at all. You can just grind it with your teeth.

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.

Bacteria can do pretty much any chemistry that's within their energy reach. E.g. making sugars out of plastics. Or ethanol. Or anything else. There's no law that says it has to be all water and co2. I see no argument why it can't be partial - enzymes do partial degrading alk the time.

It's because if you are digesting plastic for energy, you pretty much can't make anything else out of it.

Like you said, energy reach.

that's entirely dependent on whether the bacteria can exist within the gut of the aforementioned marine life. If they're eating plastic, and ingest that bacteria, and it starts to act on all of the plastic that's been stuck in their system for years, that would improve the situation.

> If they're eating plastic, and ingest that bacteria, and it starts to act on all of the plastic that's been stuck in their system for years, that would improve the situation.

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).

>And, it further presumes that all the accumulated plastic resides within the gut (it doesn't)

Where does it reside?

Once the pieces get small, they tend to migrate and accumulate throughout an organism. e.g. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/20...

No one really knows what the impact of this is. Maybe it's not too bad. Maybe it is.

How are plastics different than other un-metabolizeable (?) substances (dirt) that organisms have been accidentally ingesting since time immemorial?

Some are probably toxic, but so are naturally occurring heavy metals, etc.

On long enough time scales, the all of the plastic on Earth will be incinerated, regardless of whether microbes evolve to make use of it sooner.

Most plastics are just water and CO2 in various combinations. A few (PVC) have some chlorine, but the vast majority could be burned, or digested by a bacteria, and emit just water and CO2.

When I saw bugs, I thought "that's new". But apparently it's just bacteria, which is old news.

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.

It is possible someone is trying to develop these commercially (likely, I'd guess) but if they're just observing natural mutation and reporting it I'm not sure there needs to be a timeline.

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.

> something just around the corner, but always a decade or so away.

Is there a word for it?

Soon TM



This video I recently watched, and was well recently made, from Anton Petrov, covers some novel new techniques to create self reproducing cells which might actually be a great candidate for cleaning our oceans. It's at least a _lot_ closer than I ever imagined it would be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnivFz2rbM4

I don't know enough about this subject but does anyone know if this bacteria is harmful to humans? Like could it eat the micro-plastics in our water and food and still be safe if we later ingested it?

The real answer is "no one knows", but my intuition would be that you wouldn't expect them to be particularly harmful.

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.)

To me this sounds like easy cynicism. Is it really your expectation that evolution happens on the same time scale as Latest Software 2.0?

I'm also still waiting for my shipment of 90% efficient solar panels.

In the extreme limit, for a multi-junction solar cell with an infinite number of layers, the efficiency limit is 68.7% for normal sunlight, or 86.8% using concentrated sunlight.


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.

Considering that black-body absorbers for water heating run around 75%, you might be waiting for a while?


I can't avoid pointing out the glaring miscategorization of microbiota as insects in the title.

Surely you’ve heard disease causing agents referred to that way

Only in America, and it rubs me wrong each time. Regardless of my feelings on local dialect, this is the title of an article on scientific advancement. They shouldn't be taxonomically vague. It's misleading at best, clickbait at worst.

If you are going to be that picky then your original complaint was imprecise. Bug != insect. True bugs are hemiptera or possibly only heteroptera [1], bugs generally are any arthropods [2].

It's surely not useful word if you wanted to be precise. The word bug is taxonomically vague.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemiptera

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bug

"Insects are the largest group within the arthropod phylum" [0]

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.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insect

Me too, actually. There is a subset of the population that insists on misusing language, and the effect is that the meaning of words becomes diluted, confusing, leading to misunderstandings and horrendous flame wars. It's just senseless.

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?

Yes, but it's not the word's primary meaning. Using it in a headline like that -- where it's the first thing the reader sees, rather than after context has been established -- is misleading.

Very rarely (I'd heard the term "stomach bug"), and I would expect that to be slang—used by people who don't know whether the disease-causing agent is a virus, a bacterium, or something else (likely people who aren't very clear on the distinction between a virus and a bacterium). Does anyone who studies bacteria call them "bugs"?

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.

Eh, my mother has always spoken of stomach bugs and she's always known they weren't caused by insects. Her father was a botanist and her mother a geologist, so she grew up in closed proximity to people who spent a lot of time talking about the natural science. Likewise she knows that insect bugs aren't "true bugs" and that jellyfish and starfish are not jelly, fish, or stars.

This post seems to indicate that it is colloquially used in the field:


Although, I'd expect a science writer in the field to understand that the general public doesn't use this slang.

I have a friend who's a microbiologist and hanging out with him and his lab, "bug" is the preferred US slang term for any kind of microbe. In a more formal setting they'd be specific about the type of microbe. I don't think anyone is getting insects and microbes confused.

My infectious diseases professor said of Ebola "that's a horrible bug". It seems to be standard slang in the field.

You mean cooties?

I am afraid you are heavily misinterpreting. The article is obviously talking about off-by-one, out-of-bounds, use-after-free, and the rest of real world bugs.

I'm definitely doing my part to clean up the planet then!

If you're speaking colloquially, earthworms are bugs but they aren't insects. If you're being pedantic, houseflies are insects but they aren't bugs.

I've also heard lobsters described as bugs, since they are crustaceans similar to woodlice.

It's probably easier to list the invertebrates that aren't commonly called bugs than those that are. Squid, octopus and jellyfish get a pass. The immobile ones like corals and sponges as well, but I think that's about it.

I wonder what waste products the enzyme produces? Apologies if this is a nonsensical question, I don't know much about biology.

depends, but it's probably ultimately broken down into CO2. Halogens become salt, due to dehalogenase.

edit: dehalogenase, not halogenase

> broken down into CO2

Might as well burn them in district heaters then? Provided you catalyze/capture the non-CO2 compounds as well as possible.

burning is less precise and will have indeterminate byproducts - soot - (dioxins e.g.), because it's a fast process.

Dioxins are intermediaries in the process of current wood and coal-burning plants. But they eventually get burned as well.

> The gas-phase dioxins can be substantially destroyed using catalysts, some of which can be present as part of the fabric filter bag structure.


Proper trash incineration will not produce complex molecules. It does require an actual plant designed for that instead of a pit in the ground, though.

I'm a layperson, but, 'clean' CO2 sounds preferable over those byproducts. At least CO2 is captured and sequestered by plants.

You can burn co2 also.

Sorry, no. Carbon dioxide will not react further with oxygen no matter how hot you get it. In other words, it will not burn.

sorry, I was confused by the dirty byproduct carbon monoxide (CO), which is a dirty gas you get from burning plastics, which can be burned into carbon dioxide (CO2) - which is considered harmless except that it's a greenhouse gas.

Thank you for explaining!

Plasma converting/gasification doesn't have the "fast process" problem. (Of course it has its own challenges to solve.)

Do the actual microbes emit CO2 or is some of that carbon used in replication? As awesome as it sounds that plastic will be biodegradable, I'm sure there's a lot of plastics are used in critical places with the assumption they won't degrade in nature. If microbes/enzymes do release a lot of CO2 in this process, are we destroying the atmosphere for the sake of the landfill? Does anyone know how many tons of CO2 are trapped in plastics?

> Do the actual microbes emit CO2 or is some of that carbon used in replication


Bacteria can (and do) also produce methane, which is even worse greenhouse gas.

From a quick view the bacteria eats all the products of the enzyme

The "bugs are eating plastic" articles are the new "scientists discover new breakthrough battery technology" clickbait articles that get posted every few months for the past three decades.

> "bugs"

By which they mean bacteria. I was hoping they meant insects

I understood it to mean insects, and was confused that the article's body talked about bacteria. Like, is this a usage of "bug" I'm not familiar with? Dictionary results talk specifically about insects (and about surveillance electronics)... Ok, Merriam-Webster's 3a here says it can refer to a microorganism of indeterminate nature: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bug

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.

In the biotech field is indeed quite common to refer to microbes as bugs. Thanks for reminding that this is ambiguous outside the field!

“Bug” meaning “insect” is a North Americanism [0]. The article is from The Guardian in the UK, where the non-insect meaning is the more natural interpretation, particularly in a headline (cf “hospital superbug” for stories about MRSA [1]).

[0] https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/englis... [1] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/mrsa/

Brit here - context matters, so when I read this headline on HN, which is US-centric, I assumed it meant insects.

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 :/

But even that meaning applies it only to infectious diseases, not all bacteria.

Sadly they probably did realize it and that's exactly why they ran it that way

Nom nom nom... delicious... Coca Cola bottle.

Yeah but that's because they keep making incremental discoveries. This is just the next one.

Microbes didn't know how to eat wood for tens of millions of years


What's the difference in terms of energy reward? Might there be greater evokutionary pressure to digest plastic?

But mycelium did!

Does this mean someone somewhere is kicking off research on a material resistant to these microbes?

How about metals?

... please no. Isn't there enough plastic pollution already.

Bugs eating through moisture barriers sounds like a bad thing.

Have you ever worked on an older house or car? Plastic rots, one way or another, and those moisture barriers will have become brittle and useless over time. I don't know what causes this to happen, especially when we keep being told plastic will outlast civilization itself, but my experience is that plastic in usage has a very definitive shelf life.

You replace it as you do with anything else that exists. Everything requires maintenance.

Yes, plastic degrades mainly through oxidation, water, and UV exposure. The danger is that these kinds of things just embrittle the plastic, causing it to crack, flake and powder into smaller pieces ("chain scission"), which we believe are still endocrinologically significant. True biodegradation would mean the plastic is reduced to base chemicals like CO2.

Or plumbing, drainage, electronics, cars, and a million other things

It already exists, it's called PVC (the chlorine is likely to be a large barrier to bacteria eating it).

And most things do not use this plastic, so you don't need to worry.

Probably - widespread microbial digestion of plastics is a civilization ending event for us, I expect.

Plastics were hardly used 100 years ago, and civilization was thriving. Going back to that might be difficult, but the world will mostly be the same.

Running a Hidden Markov Model against shotgun metagenomic datasets != culturing microorganisms that can "do the thing".

Link to actual journal article: https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/mBio.02155-21

I would love to go back in time, even just as an observer who couldn't modify the past. To be clear, I don't believe time travel is physically possible despite anyone's mental gymnastics with negative mass and/or energy. This is purely fanciful.

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.

See submission and comments here for some good material : https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24459997

I mean, fire still existed 200M years ago :V

This is actually more of a problem than it first sounds - a lot of the time plastic is used because it's not biodegradable, doesn't rot and is not attacked by bugs - its a wonder material in many ways - its why it's replaced wood in an lot of applications.

Reminds me of the George Carlin quote: "The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it's true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn't share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth."

Every time I see one of these articles, I can't help but think of some bacteria evolving or escaping a lab that works a bit too well and ends up destroying the modern world

ala, "Ringworld" by Larry Niven, in which,

City Builder rule ended after the Ringworld was infected with a superconductor eating bacteria in a plot by the Puppeteers


At first this sounds interesting, than astonishing, than great, than maybe a little scary and in the end nature will eat plastic-teeth, car-interiours, undersea-internet-cables and clothes. Everyone naked without technology at last ;)

Yeah one of the things we like about plastic is that it isn’t (very)biodegradable. Once we are done with it, sure we might be fine with it biodegrading, but not before.

Sounds great to me. Why not manufacture plastics designed to degrade at increased rates in the presence of those enzymes? If turning plastics into compostables was easier, it might keep them out of the oceans.

They already manufacture a variety of biodegradable plastics. They are not more widely used because they have some combination of undesirable properties compared to common plastics (expensive, brittle, cannot be exposed to sunlight, moisture, etc.)

Preprocessing for recycling is a big concern too. When I still worked at the farmers market in San Francisco, I overheard one of the small-time sellers telling the staff that she couldn’t take the compostable green Bio-Bags to Marin, only SF and Alameda County — as Marin’s waste disposal facilities apparently weren’t equipped to shred them before composting.

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.

Bit of a Layman but it seems there's an economy in the biological pathways for processing plastic going by pieces I've read.

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.

At first this sounds interesting, than astonishing, than great, than maybe a little scary and in the end nature will eat plastic-teeth, car-interiors, undersea-internet-cables and clothes. Everyone naked without technology at last ;)

It reminds me of: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_Gobblers

Funny short, it's on YT, but English version only incomplete.

No 'bugs' were harmed in this article.

But is there a rise of the plastivors on the horizon?


Maybe, maybe not.


And scientists just created a warp bubble, physicists are on the verge of cheap fusion, we cannot discount the possibility of a near-term AGI, and there's a cube shaped thing on the moon. Need I go on?

Bacteria. Not bugs...

We produce over 350 million tonnes of plastic each year [1]. If all of the plastic degraded would the carbon released significantly add to our greenhouse gas emissions?

[1]: https://www.statista.com/statistics/282732/global-production...

> 350 million tonnes

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.

That’s a great way to put things in perspective: Have I consumed more than my weight in plastic this year?

My guess is yes, especially if the plastic was made from fossil fuels.

Looks like it would add a single digit percentage to our global greenhouse gas emissions.

For the most widely produced plastics we have: [2]

  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
For greenhouse gas we have: [3]

  Greenhouse gas              Emission (2019)
  Carbon dioxide CO2  27% C   57,000 Mt gas  15,000 Mt C
Altogether we have about 200 Mt C in plastics vs. 15,000 Mt C in greenhouse gas emissions.

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic#Commodity_plastics

[3]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas_emissions#Measu...

Wow, I didn't realize that plastic production was 3 orders of magnitude different than emissions. That would likely make it seem much smaller.

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.

How much energy is there in plastics to be released? More than in wood?

If there is a decent amount, it's almost inevitable that life will find a way.

Quite a bit higher than wood, comparable to diesel (in some cases). Whichever bacteria figures this out is going to be king.


Perhaps bugs have always been eating plastic?

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.

They do though. Your degraded plastic bags have pieces that broke down. Some of those are microscopic. It will take a long time for those pieces to finally go away.

I'm claiming from personal experience that they do break down.

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?

What's the output? If microbes can eat plastic but turn it into CO2, it solves one problem, but creates another.

But way less

So the plan is

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

How long before plastic rots/degrades like wood or other materials?

That's not really known for sure, likely a very long time. It mostly seems to slowly structurally degrade into micro-particles, at the time scales available to us so far. The nearest analogy I'm aware of was the Carboniferous period, which occurred because the lignin in woody plants couldn't be broken down by organisms, so it accumulated in vast quantities in bogs and such. These massive deposits of undecayed organic matter eventually fossilised, under the conditions of temperature and pressure developed by geological formations, into coal and oil.

So a long time might turn out to be a very, very long time indeed.

The Anthropocene will be marked by the plastic-rich strata.

I'm sure at some point down the line, a future generation can use 'old' plastic a a resource. I'm of the (amateur) opinion that plastic should be separated out by type, then stored / sequestered until it can be used as a raw material again, instead of dumped or incinerated as it is now.

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.

Up to a point, but a lot of it is already broken down into microparticles and distributed across the surface of the earth. I mean, _all_ of the surface of the Earth - from deep sea bed (1) to beaches (2) to mountains (3) to the Arctic (4).

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.

1) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/30/micropla...

2) https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2021/april/over-four-bil...

3) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/20/micropla...

4) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/remote-ar...

Don’t forget cleaned

Also a fossil record of chicken bones!

(1) https://www.newscientist.com/article/2187838-when-humans-are...

I read somewhere that 300 million years ago, when trees died, they didn’t rot. It took 60 million for bacteria to evolve to be able to decompose wood. Which is where most our coal comes from.

Those wood decomposing bacteria are the evolutionary slackers of the Carboniferous Era. Our new plastic decomposing bacteria evolved in only 60 years. In 60 million years of evolution they'll have their own space program.

> In 60 million years of evolution they'll have their own space program.

LOL, You mean like Astrophage?

It took a VERY long time for wood to be digested, and there was way more of it around than plastic.

And does the landfills buried before that point become coal and oil :)


Not everything that is made from plastic is bad, for example things that are made from waste plastic.

Reminds me of Doomwatch: the Plastic Eaters


Any risk of the bugs eating the plastics that are still in use?

Yes but not yet.

Bugs have eaten much of Titanic's metal and organic parts. There should be little left by its 200 year anniversary.

way way back in the day there was a Judge Dredd story about bacteria eating plastic used for infrastructure.

Life, uh.. finds a way.

Nature is healing

Plot twist: so are humans


The planet hasn't dealt with the problem. This is good news at the first order, but it's clear that this is one more way that human activity may be dramatically impacting ecosystems. No one knows how this might affect food chains or chemical conditions. Organisms higher up in the food web are unlikely to evolve at the same pace and we could lose a lot of biodiversity and complexity that took dozens of millions of years to emerge.

This would not solve the microplastic pollution problem, which continues to be a health hazard. It's not likely that most of the biosphere can adapt. We certainly can't.

maybe too early for such conclusion?

> “We found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution — a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” said Prof. Aleksej Zelezniak of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

> 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.

> of the system quietly upgrading itself to handle whatever we throw at it

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.

That's not what I said. Calm down.

I copied and pasted your comment. Do you want to revise what you meant?

I encourage you to elaborate on what you meant if I got it wrong.

Sure. Humans introduced something with a negative potential into the world (created out of things that were already in the world). Because of that negative potential, God (IMO, not a "man in the sky" but a form of positively-charged energy) introduced an organic solution as a starting point for humans to fix the problem. Then, scientists (following what I'd argue is a God-given impetus and capacity to do so) iterate on the discovery of the bugs to improve their efficiency.

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: me@ryanglover.net.

What makes plastic something with a negative potential? Was lignin a "thing with negative potential" until some organisms capable of dissolving it appeared? What makes humans a separate thing from "God" - are they not a part of the same nature that created them (and lignin)?

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.

Not unclear or impolite at all. I appreciate the thoughtful response.

> 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).

Thanks for sharing. This is a fascinating perspective for sure.

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.

You did and then you editorialized a very ignorant interpretation of it.

Seems pretty accurate to me

Using evolution as proof of God's existence is something I find truly intriguing.

As someone who had a very orthodox upbringing (though would now class myself as an agnostic geek), I find the disparity between religion and science to be baffling, especially the more fundemental beliefs.

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.

It's a rabbit hole, for sure. The way I came to this point of view is through programming and the intentionality of it all. Evolution is just an algorithm. Based on what we know about the world, something or someone had to write that algorithm. I've burned some serious cycles thinking about this and always end up laughing at how little we know.

It begs the question: who created evolution? (I’m not saying “God”; just asking a question).

Ultimately "who created X" can kind of go on forever. Who created evolution? The Universe. Who created the Universe? God. Who created God? Uh oh. If you decide that God is and always was, then you could say the same about the Universe itself.

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.

This general problem is called the "unmoved mover" in philosophy. Aristotle famously determined that there were a couple dozen unmoved movers, i.e. celestial spheres.

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?[1] :-)

[1]: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%... and forward.

It really does not beg that question at all.

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.

Evolution is a name humanity has given a process. It makes no sense to ask "who created evolution".

Change the question then: “who or what created the process or the laws that define the process?” I’m not providing an answer, but am wondering about your answer.

It is an emergent phenomena of imperfect replication

No it doesn't. Think for a moment about how absurd it is use the phrase "it begs the question" in this manner. The statement is on it's knees pleading for the question, "who created evolution?" That is what you are effectively claiming. Statements, whether true or false, can not drive cars, travel the world, raise a family, lose their jobs, be divorced, lose their home, and end up on the street with nothing, nor even beg.

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’m sorry you focused on one verb in the sentence rather than the overall meaning of the sentence. You likely got my meaning but instead decided to focus not on the question but it’s particular wording. I think that is called pedantic, but I’m hesitant to invoke a word that might upset you because of my misuse of it.

I did not assume a conclusion when I asked that question.

Your sincerity moves me, so I will absolve you of my focusing on what words mean. So much for accuracy and semantics, which, by the way, contrary to popular belief, is of vital importance to understanding what you are saying and it being understood by anyone else.

Isn't it an inevitable process considering how life works on this planet? I suppose you could say that life creates it, in the same way that you could say drivers create traffic patterns.

Why do you start from the question of something needing to be "created"? And why a "who"?

If it was God, it would beg the question, who created God?

Yes. And this is why I think humans are overly-hubristic in their thinking. It excites the hell out of me that we just don't know.

No. Even the things we do know you've just said aren't explainable by anything but God in this thread.

In effect, yes, but that's an oversimplification. This is a multi-hour/day/week/month/year conversation.

Not really. Humans created God. The end.

While we might dismiss human notions of a god, independent of humans, there still are cosmological details to the universe that do not have tidy answers. There is no reason to believe that advances in the understanding of the creation of universe will actually explain existence, but only push back our knowledge such that we will remain unclear on the prior causes whatever we figure out.

There is a profound "Turtles all the way down" problem even confined to fully rational discussion of the matter.

Exactly. Evolution can't explain evolution.

The word "evolution" describes a process we've observed in systems with heritable characteristics and environmental pressures that more or less randomly select for or against those characteristics. It doesn't need a prime mover per se, because it's a statistical phenomenon.

How did the laws or rules for that process come about?

The thing we call “science” is a loose collection of deductive, inductive, and abductive rules of inference, combined with empirical observation. A great deal of ink has been spent trying to determine the exact “laws” of science; Popper and Kuhn can probably help you with the details.

Religious fanatics have used this argument for the past few million things that have since been explained by science. Will likely do so for the next who knows how many years until everything is explained.

It's a valid argument (prepending "religious fanatics" to discredit it is intellectually weak). Science is nothing more than humans finding explanation for what was already created. The worship of it leads to an ignorance of the "why" and "who," putting an overemphasis on the what, where, when, and how.

Why? and who? are questions humans ask about their societies, families, and products. Assuming it applies to non-human natural phenomenon is quite intensely anthropomorphic and more than a little arrogant.

I shudder at the thought of your upbringing if curiosity is viewed as arrogance.

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).

My upbringing was evangelical Christian... thus my distaste for theological supremacism.

Yeah, that will do it (I have a close friend in the same boat and understand the distaste). It's difficult, but I'd urge you to separate your views of God from that point of view.

Beh, I see it as a bonus having had that upbringing and moving on from it. Kind of like an immunization shot. I read a lot of theology and philosophy of religion, frankly, I'm quite religiously literate and my discipline in university was philosophy. But I'm an atheist, or maybe a scientific pantheist of some kind. There's no part of me that is against "asking questions", but part of inquiry is knowing which questions to ask.

Should we expect evolution to explain evolution, though? It reminds me a bit of the "falsifiability is not falsifiable" kind of argument - just like falsifiability doesn't apply to itself (it applies to science and falsifiability is a metascientific term), evolution is a biological term and doesn't apply to cosmogony.

Perhaps it can.

Put simply, (maybe) life that does not evolve gets out competed and dies out.

I actually think that's the logical conclusion.

Yes, but how did the rules for evolution come about?

We can push the question further back.

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.

Consider that your question is based on a misunderstanding. There aren't "rules" of evolution, it's just our label for part of what happens when you leave a bunch of hydrogen sitting around for an extended period of time. It's emergent behavior.

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.

[citation needed]

gotta update the marketing

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