Bacteria are Evolving to Eat the Plastic We Dump Into the Oceans
The ocean is full of plastic, a grim marker of the Anthropocene. There are floating, continent-size patches of it in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and there are newly formed ones in the Arctic. There are some uninhabited islands that are drowning in the stuff.
Weirdly, though, scientists have come to the conclusion that, based on the amount of plastic we make every year, there is only about one-hundredth as much of the plastic floating around as the numbers would suggest. Although there are many possible explanations for this, a new study available on the pre-print server bioRxiv has concluded that microbes are breaking the plastic down.
This may sound utterly bizarre, but just last year, researchers discovered that a newly discovered species of bacteria was able to shatter the molecular bonds of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the most common forms of plastic. They’re literally using it as a food source.
Normally, PET takes 450 years to completely degrade in the environment. These bacteria make short work of it in just six weeks. It’s this information that has led to a team of researchers from the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona to suspect that the lack of plastic in the oceans is largely down to these microscopic critters.
Using mathematical modeling, they have come to the conclusion that other geological processes or counting errors can explain the discrepancy between the global rate of plastic production and its “underwhelming” presence at sea.