Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Food for thought..and for microbes

We have to thank our friends the microbes. Those little guys break down our food scraps into compost to enrich soil, and now they are cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico!

OK, they are partially cleaning it up. Today’s headlines (NYT for one) detailing the publication later this week of an article in Science about BP-oil-eating microbes are fascinating for a few reasons. One is that nobody knows for sure how much of the oil was broken down by these bacteria. Scientists know they have consumed a portion of the underwater plume, but there are still chemical byproducts as well as the surfaced oil to worry about. Also the underwater plume may have been thinned out in one location but could show up later in another. So the bugs haven’t totally saved the Gulf, as much as BP would hope that it was so.

But let’s give the bugs credit for what they’ve done so far - recycled waste into food. The rich new food source these as-yet-unnamed bacteria suddenly found on the ocean floor led to an explosion in microbial activity (the underwater plume on the ocean floor was the site of the leak, rather than oil spills like Valdez where the oil source comes into the ocean from the top – hence different microbes living at that sea level found themselves with a new food source and multiplied like crazy). Apparently, over millions of years, these deep-sea microbes have evolved to eat the occasional oil leak from the earth. Thanks to them, the haze of the underwater oil plume is gone, and there is now just a haze of cellular debris leftover from the microbial fellows after their short lives. Perhaps even this becomes food (plankton?) for other ocean life. BP should really give these guys a big thank you for the massive clean up.

Plastic debris on reef. credit: David Burdick NOAA.
Now, the other haze of debris in the ocean - the Pacific Ocean to be exact - is that floating plastic landscape the size of Texas, lovingly referred to as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Unfortunately for the oceans (and ultimately for us) no microbe has yet developed to eat plastic bottle tops, nurdles, or netting. But, as Alan Weisman notes in his book The World Without Us, perhaps in a hundred thousand or maybe a million years (like their oil-digesting cousins), some microbes will adapt and do our clean-up for us. They can dine on all of our to-go cutlery, food packaging, toys, buttons, medical tubing, credit cards, drinking straws, film, nylon carpets, polyester clothing, ID badges, acrylic paints, foam cushions, vinyl siding, water bottles, dashboards, computer casings, et alia that we’re all using at this exact moment. It will be a feast for them!

But seriously, we can’t count on evolution to watch our backs on this one. Since we don’t know if plastic-digesting bugs will ever come into being, perhaps we should take the precautionary approach (see Carol’s previous post) and limit our plastic use as much as possible. Obviously the keyboard and mouse I’m using at this moment are both coated in plastic – yes, it’s not going to be easy to rid ourselves – but we have to start somewhere. Stainless steel Tupperware, anyone? Can I get you some bioplastics?

P.S. You can read for free Weisman’s disturbing chapter “Polymers are Forever” by clicking on Chapter 9 here.

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