The Darker Side of Plastic Eating Organisms

In the wake of the BP oil disaster, many new organisms are receiving much more attention as potential means of combating the onslaught of manmade pollutants to the environment.  One such bacteria was discovered in 2007 by a teenager who developed a means by which a plastic bag could be dissolved in a matter of only a few months.  But are these organisms really the environmental panacea the human race has been looking for?

It’s no small task to try to take on a miraculous bacteria that could solve one of the most pressing environmental problems to date.  A bacteria that could clean up the world from a massive wasteland of discarded plastics seems on the surface to be nothing short of an ecological gift from the gods.  And while we shouldn’t let fear alone decide our policies, a few scenarios have been outlined by many science fiction writers like Michael Crichton that paint a disturbing interpretation of organisms that eat plastics.

Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas by themselves are interesting bacteria to biologists maybe, but your average person on the street isn’t going to give them much notice.  But combine them as Daniel Burd did for a science fair project in 2008, and you have a bacteria that can actually solve many ecological problems.  But if the “effectiveness” of the bacteria, or another like it, were taken a step further, it could actually make other plastics dissipate quickly.  And then what if it mutated into something that spread and consumed, multiplying like other things in nature do?  Fairly quickly many plastics, which are present in everything from weapons to a great deal of plastic devices found in hospitals would be affected and rendered obsolete fairly quickly.  Plastic windows, cars, planes, boats, computers, and even whole buildings could quickly fall apart and quickly deteriorate over the course of a few decades.  Of course such a bacteria doesn’t exist currently.  But if it did, it would find a bountiful supply of food wherever humanity touched down in the past 100 years.  But what are plastics made out of?  Many plastics come from petrochemicals much like those released during the BP oil spill.  Plastic bags are made of polyethylene.

How likely is a bacteria that goes rogue and decides to eat all the plastic in the world?  And how easily would such a bacteria spread?  While the likelihood of development is difficult to determine, it can be said that certain bacteria would find the most readily available method of transportation would likely come alongside humans in the form of passing vehicles traveling along highways and with shipped goods.  A single factory could unwittingly spread the bacteria to stores where it would distribute to homes and then the rest of the world.  And of course let’s not forget the insulators in ground wires.  Even if shipping were stopped between communities to suppress the spread of the bacteria, there is an interlocking system of plastic veins running between most cities that could allow the bacteria to spread eventually all over.

Science fiction?  Perhaps.  But a bacteria that eats plastic could not only come from a natural environment, but also be created either by accident or design to efficiently wipe the earth clean of evidence that the human race ever progressed past the 18th century.