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Question: If plastic-eating bacteria were released, how drastic do you think the effect would be?
bacteria, effect, plastic
Asked by Jonathan The Awesome to Mark on 3 May 2016.
answered on 3 May 2016:
Assuming they could eat all kinds of plastic, the effects would be catastrophic because most of our useful devices, even cars, have a lot of plastic in them.
Clay, aka Dr. Dirt commented on 4 May 2016:
There are already a few bacteria that have the ability to “eat” some plastics. But “eat” is not exactly what those microorganisms do.
The microbes (includes bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes, among others) release enzymes into the soil that work like little scissors to cut specific bonds that hold atoms together into molecules. Most commonly, these enzymes cut bonds between carbon and nitrogen, carbon and sulfur, or carbon and phosphorus or some other element. In plastics, most of the bonds are between 2 carbon atoms, and there are only a few microbes that have the necessary enzymes to cut the bonds between 2 carbon atoms as they occur in plastics; this is the reasons plastics persist in the environment. Most plastics are made from crude oil byproducts, things left over after it is processed to make gasoline, diesel, other fuels, and grease. These molecules are very long chains of carbons that are uncommon in the surface soils where most of the microbes evolved, and after processing, the bonds in plastics become more resistant to decomposition.
So, what would happen if bacteria that could decompose plastics were released into the environment?
Well, some bacteria are being genetically engineered to decompose oil and gas compounds to help clean up polluted soils and water after oil spills.
It is possible to engineer bacteria to decompose plastics, though it would be more difficult. If we could contain the bacteria to the contaminated soils or waters, there would not be a problem. But things we release into the environment usually escape and then we find them in other places, and as Mark stated, that would be very, very bad.
We should focus on reusing and recycling plastics, but many cities still do not have recycling programs, so the plastics end up in landfills, or worse, blowing across the landscape or floating in the water.
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