In his latest “Secrets of the Cell” video, biochemist Michael Behe tells about wonderful bacteria that eat organic waste, remove smells from mud by conducting electricity, recycle plastic, aid our digestion, and more. “Folks, you can’t make this stuff up!” he exclaims. “Bacteria are incredible.”
That is true, and I provided some illustrations yesterday. Here are more.
Think of man’s worst environmental disasters. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear accident probably take priority on the list. The American Chemical Society posted a video showing how bacteria are good at cleaning up oil spills, radioactive waste and toxic chemicals — not that this fact gives humans license to damage the planet, but it’s interesting. The narrator, who demonstrates a controlled experiment with oil-eating bacteria in her kitchen, was surprised that the microbes that flock to oil spills need no genetic engineering. They get to work on their own and seem to enjoy it. “How cool is it that genetic tinkering is not always needed?” she comments.
Much of our plastic debris, however, accumulates in the oceans where it collects in huge revolving garbage patches on the surface called gyres. How many people faithfully recycle plastic bottles only to find in news reports that China no longer accepts the West’s barges of compressed plastic, and so it ends up in the ocean anyway? It’s depressing. Some have remarked that recycling might do more damage than throwing it in the regular trash. For those trying to be environmentally conscious, that’s really depressing.
Environmental engineers fret as plastic waste accumulates and circulates in those gyres. But a few decades ago, scientists began to discover that these garbage patches are not lifeless deserts. They are teeming with a class of organisms collectively known as “neuston.” New Scientist reports:
Neuston are organisms that float on the ocean surface. They encompass a wide range of species, including blue sea dragons (Glaucus atlanticus), violet snails (Janthina janthina), blue button jellyfish (Porpita porpita) and by-the-wind sailors (Velella velella).
Rebecca Helm at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and colleagues found that there are more neuston in the center of the North Pacific Garbage Patch than at the edges. This is probably true worldwide, as similar garbage patches are found in the South Pacific, South Atlantic, and Indian oceans. At least some life forms are making a living on our trash! Some of the organisms are quite beautiful.
So now, Helm is worried that cleanup efforts could endanger these thriving communities of organisms. Another worry is that fish and whales could imbibe plastic by feeding on the neuston. There is a race against time to give the plastic-degrading bacteria time to work while the higher organisms enjoy their merry-go-round ride on artificial boats. There’s a research project: to what extent does the neuston ecosystem contribute to the breakdown of floating plastic?
If environmental engineers can find ways to accelerate bacteria’s good work, it may prove to be a much more cost-effective way to recycle plastic than packing it on barges. Maybe biodegradation could be started earlier in the process. Either way, it appears that the food chain, with microbes at the base, has the power to degrade all that plastic eventually if a true circular economy comes to fruition and the accumulation in the gyres ceases.
A Food Chain of Recyclers
Alice Klein’s article in New Scientist doesn’t mention the food chain, but earlier reports have found that microbes contribute to the breakdown of ocean garbage and even larger artificial junk. We know that organisms recycle our shipwrecks in the deep sea. If you want to visit the Titanic by submarine, you had better hurry; it could vanish by 2037. The EE Times explained why:
The iconic ocean liner is, in fact, disintegrating where it lies; as well as animals and plants, its inhabitants include bacteria, which are eating their home at a staggering rate. One type of bacteria transforms dissolved iron into insoluble iron oxide to create rusticles — like icicles, but made of rust. Other types of the dozen or so microbes present effectively eat the rusticles.
And so the evidence of man’s grandiose projects — elegant ballrooms under chandeliers on a doomed “unsinkable” ship — vanishes into memory, as the ocean reclaims its own. But there’s a happy side to some of our shipwrecks. Multitudes of fish and other sea creatures have taken up residence in and around battleships from the South Pacific, even those sunk by nuclear bomb tests. Considering this discovery, some ships have been submerged on purpose to provide havens for fish and scuba divers. Microbes and viruses are sure to be key players in those thriving ecosystems.
Don’t Dismiss Bacteria
Instead of dismissing bacteria as primitive remnants of early evolution, design-thinking scientists can help our planet’s tiny ecosystem engineers solve some of the most pressing problems facing us today. By looking at microbes as the intelligently designed systems they are — having shown their benefits in many ways — ID advocates can partner with them. Like the first ranchers, they can bridle and saddle up these tiny workhorses that come equipped to tackle planet-sized loads.