The health benefits of… plastic pollution?

Oh boy, that’a fun headline, isn’t it?

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the minor misery of how every bit of good news we get these days seems to be some form of, “well, it’s not as bad as we thought”. This isn’t one of those stories. From everything I can tell, plastic pollution is still a huge problem, both for the biosphere, and for ourselves. As I’ve said before, we don’t just need to deal with climate change and habitat destruction, we also have a global cleanup project ahead of us that will likely be the effort of multiple generations at least. Mine waste, landfills, electronic waste, runoff, and the list just goes on and on.

That said, another major theme of this blog is the importance of finding ways to work with nature, and to get nature to work with us. The biosphere is changing in response to everything we’ve done over the last few hundred years, with bacteria evolving to eat substances that never existed before we made them. Things like that are likely to be useful when dealing with plastics, and it turns out that evolution in response to plastic pollution might actually have some beneficial results:

Scientists estimate between 5 and 13 million metric tons of plastic pollution enter the oceans each year, ranging from large floating debris to microplastics onto which microbes can form entire ecosystems. Plastic debris is rich in biomass, and therefore could be a good candidate for antibiotic production, which tends to occur in highly competitive natural environments.

To explore the potential of the plastisphere to be a source of novel antibiotics, the researchers modified the Tiny Earth citizen science approach (developed by Dr. Jo Handelsman) to marine conditions. The researchers incubated high and low density polyethylene plastic (the type commonly seen in grocery bags) in water near Scripps Pier in La Jolla, Calif. for 90 days.

The researchers isolated 5 antibiotic producing bacteria from ocean plastic, including strains of BacillusPhaeobacter and Vibrio. They tested the bacterial isolates against a variety of Gram positive and negative targets, finding the isolates to be effective against commonly used bacteria as well as 2 antibiotic resistant strains.

“Considering the current antibiotic crisis and the rise of superbugs, it is essential to look for alternative sources of novel antibiotics,” said study lead author Andrea Price of National University. “We hope to expand this project and further characterize the microbes and the antibiotics they produce.”

This is still preliminary research, but it makes sense to use environments that never existed before to find antibiotics that nothing can resist yet. Obviously this in no way changes the urgent need for environmental cleanup, but it’s a good reminder to pay attention as we’re doing it, and learn as much as possible from the process.

We’ve inherited an absolute shit-show of a world. We live in the proverbial “interesting times”, but it’s worth remembering sometimes that can throw something good our way.

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