Bacteria are starting to eat plastic


Plastic washed ashore in Bali/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Microbes in oceans and soils across the globe are evolving to eat plastic, according to a study.

The research scanned more than 200m genes found in DNA samples taken from the environment and found 30,000 different enzymes that could degrade 10 different types of plastic…

The study is the first large-scale global assessment of the plastic-degrading potential of bacteria and found that one in four of the organisms analysed carried a suitable enzyme. The researchers found that the number and type of enzymes they discovered matched the amount and type of plastic pollution in different locations…

The explosion of plastic production in the past 70 years, from 2m tonnes to 380m tonnes a year, had given microbes time to evolve to deal with plastic, the researchers said. The study, published in the journal Microbial Ecology, started by compiling a dataset of 95 microbial enzymes already known to degrade plastic, often found in bacteria in rubbish dumps and similar places rife with plastic…

Nearly 60% of the new enzymes did not fit into any known enzyme classes, the scientists said, suggesting these molecules degrade plastics in ways that were previously unknown.

So, is this good news or bad news? Or is it just “news”? There are scary bits in the article; but, on the whole, I think we may be onto something useful.

A milky sea of luminous bacteria

“The whole appearance of the ocean was like a plain covered with snow. There was scarce a cloud in the heavens, yet the sky … appeared as black as if a storm was raging. The scene was one of awful grandeur, the sea having turned to phosphorus, and the heavens being hung in blackness, and the stars going out, seemed to indicate that all nature was preparing for that last grand conflagration which we are taught to believe is to annihilate this material world.”
– Captain Kingman of the American clipper ship Shooting Star, offshore of Java, Indonesia, 1854

For centuries, sailors have been reporting strange encounters like the one above. These events are called milky seas. They are a rare nocturnal phenomenon in which the ocean’s surface emits a steady bright glow. They can cover thousands of square miles and, thanks to the colorful accounts of 19th-century mariners like Capt. Kingman, milky seas are a well-known part of maritime folklore. But because of their remote and elusive nature, they are extremely difficult to study and so remain more a part of that folklore than of science…

Via a state-of-the-art generation of satellites, my colleagues and I have developed a new way to detect milky seas. Using this technique, we aim to learn about these luminous waters remotely and guide research vessels to them so that we can begin to reconcile the surreal tales with scientific understanding.

An article by Professor Steven D. Miller, Colorado State University, filled with wonder and knowledge.

Swallow “bacteria on a chip” — diagnose gastrointestinal ailments

❝ MIT researchers have built an ingestible sensor equipped with genetically engineered bacteria that can diagnose bleeding in the stomach or other gastrointestinal problems.

This “bacteria-on-a-chip” approach combines sensors made from living cells with ultra-low-power electronics that convert the bacterial response into a wireless signal that can be read by a smartphone…

❝ In the past decade, synthetic biologists have made great strides in engineering bacteria to respond to stimuli such as environmental pollutants or markers of disease. These bacteria can be designed to produce outputs such as light when they detect the target stimulus, but specialized lab equipment is usually required to measure this response.

To make these bacteria more useful for real-world applications, the MIT team decided to combine them with an electronic chip that could translate the bacterial response into a wireless signal.

RTFA for, literally, the gory details.

How do you feed the Whole Earth After the Apocalypse?

❝ How might government prepare for a worst-case scenario?

This is a question Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Technological University, began to think about while working on providing low-cost drinking water to the developing world. He found the prospect of disaster terrifying. “This would make us no better off than the dinosaurs, despite all of our technical progress,” he told me. “Humanity is too smart for that.”…

❝ Pearce partnered with David Denkenberger, a research associate at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. They looked around for detailed existing solutions and found just one: storing lots of food. But that, the two engineers realized, would probably feed the global population for a year or less.

So they developed a set of solutions that they believe would provide five years of food for the Earth’s population, and published a book about it called Feeding Everyone No Matter What. I spoke to Pearce to find out some of the very gooey ways we might survive the apocalypse.

What kinds of disasters do you think about?

❝ Let me take the most likely one: the nuclear winter case…As the world went dark, you’d have a couple of the more hearty crops survive — the trees would last a little while. But our standard crops? Your wheat, your rice, your corn? That’s all dead…As those crops fail, you’ll start to get hungry; you’ll start going into your stored food supplies…There’s no good outcome there. That darkness will basically stay for around five years, until it starts to rain out of the atmosphere and then we’ll slowly but surely get more and more sunlight and start to rejuvenate agriculture again.

❝ There are many things that you can eat that we don’t normally consider food, particularly in the west. Leaves are one of them. You can eat leaves. You just have to be careful about how you do it. Leaves are high in fiber and we can’t digest any more than half of it, but if you chew the leaves and spit out the fiber you can draw out nutrients from it. Or you can make teas…and it goes from there.

From mushrooms to insects, stuff living in the oceans to bacteria, all get their share of providing subsistence for us superior mammals. An interesting read. Especially the bits about items already accepted as food – just not in Dallas.

Ready-to-eat chicken recalled for possible bacteria — another gift from America’s industrial food

❝ National Steak and Poultry is recalling nearly 2 million pounds of ready-to-eat chicken products because they may have been undercooked, resulting in possible bacterial contamination, the USDA said.

The recall includes a variety of ready-to-eat chicken products that were produced on various dates from August 20, 2016 through November 30, 2016…

❝ This is an expanded recall which began on Nov. 23. The original problem was discovered by a call from a food service customer, complaining that the products appeared to be undercooked…

What? You thought the producer might actually have decent quality assurance in place?

❝ The label says fully cooked, but it’s possible the meat was undercooked, which means it could be contaminated with bacteria.

“Get it out the door, slaves. We can’t make any money with our chicken sitting here in an industrial pressure cooker!”

I’m a Doctor. If I Drop Food on the Kitchen Floor, I Still Eat It

❝ You may have read or heard about the study debunking the five-second rule. It said that no matter how fast you pick up food that falls on the floor, you will pick up bacteria with it.

Our continued focus on this threat has long baffled me. Why are we so worried about the floor? So many other things are more dangerous than that.

❝ There’s no magic period of time that prevents transmission. But even though I know bacteria can accumulate in less than five seconds, I will still eat food that has fallen on my kitchen floor. Why? Because my kitchen floor isn’t really that dirty.

❝ Our metric shouldn’t be whether there are more than zero bacteria on the floor. It should be how many bacteria are on the floor compared with other household surfaces. And in that respect, there are so many places in your house that pose more of a concern than the floor.

❝ Perhaps no one in the United States has spent more time investigating the occurrence of bacteria on public surfaces than Charles Gerba. He’s a professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona, and he has published many papers on the subject.

In 1998, he and his colleagues investigated how well cleaning products could reduce coliform bacteria counts on household surfaces. As part of that research, they measured various locations in the house before any cleaning.

They found that the kitchen floor was likely to harbor, on average, about three colonies per square inch of coliform bacteria (2.75 to be exact). So there are some. But here’s the thing — that’s cleaner than both the refrigerator handle (5.37 colonies per square inch) and the kitchen counter (5.75 colonies per square inch).

We spend so much time worrying about what food might have picked up from the floor, but we don’t worry about touching the refrigerator. We also don’t seem as worried about food that touches the counter. But the counter is just as dirty, if not dirtier.

Educational, informative, often humorous, RTFA. Reason prevails. That alone makes this a standout.

Worried about fracking chemicals in your water — wait till you get Frackibacter bacteria!

❝ Study finds a new genus of bacteria found living inside hydraulic fracturing wells – Frackibacter, one of dozens of microbes are forming sustainable ecosystems there…

The new genus is one of the 31 microbial members found living inside two separate fracturing wells, Ohio State University researchers and their colleagues report in…the journal Nature Microbiology.

❝ Even though the wells were hundreds of miles apart and drilled in different kinds of shale formations, the microbial communities inside them were nearly identical, researchers discovered.

Almost all the microbes they found had been seen elsewhere before, and many likely came from the surface ponds that energy companies draw on to fill the wells. But that’s not the case with the newly identified Candidatus Frackibacter, which may be unique to hydraulic fracturing sites, said Kelly Wrighton…

❝ Candidatus Frackibacter prospered alongside the microbes that came from the surface, forming communities in both wells which so far have lasted for nearly a year…

By sampling fluids taken from the two wells over 328 days, the researchers reconstructed the genomes of bacteria and archaea living in the shale. To the researchers’ surprise, both wells — one drilled in Utica shale and the other drilled in Marcellus shale — developed nearly identical microbial communities…

“We thought we might get some of the same types of bacteria, but the level of similarity was so high it was striking. That suggests that whatever’s happening in these ecosystems is more influenced by the fracturing than the inherent differences in the shale,” Wrighton said.

❝ Wrighton and her team are still not 100 percent sure of the microbes’ origins. Some almost undoubtedly came from the ponds that provide water to the wells, she said. But other bacteria and archaea could have been living in the rock before drilling began, Candidatus Frackibacter among them.

Soon to be a series of movies on the SYFY Channel, taking over from Sharknado. Like, um – Fracknado!

I made that up.

Don’t let Armadillos spit on you in Florida!


Click to enlargeGetty Images

For once…Florida citizens are not the focus of a news story. Instead, Florida armadillos are in the spotlight.

Local health officials are warning Floridians to stay away from the animals after nine people were infected with leprosy after coming into contact with the leathery armored creatures.

Typically, Florida sees just 10 cases of leprosy in a year. The centuries-old bacterial infection, also known as Hansen’s disease, causes nerve damage and disfigurement and was once a considered a sentence to death or life in isolation. Thanks to antibiotics, the disease is now treatable and only rarely spreads from person to person in the U.S., typically via coughing or sneezing.

A 2011 genetic study found that armadillos naturally harbor the bacteria that causes the illness in humans, and they may be responsible for some infections, though it is far less common for leprosy to be spread that way.

But that’s what seems to be happening in Florida.

“New homes are being developed, and we are tearing down armadillos’ homes in the process,” said Dr. Sunil Joshi…of the Duval County Medical Society. “Now these creatures are coming out in the daytime, and the people who are getting exposed are those working outside.”

Armadillos aren’t native to Florida, but the cat-sized mammals are now common throughout the state, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission…“Especially if they’re trying to get out of a cage they can spit on you,” said Florida wildlife trapper Kyle Waltz.

The bacteria that causes leprosy can lie dormant for years, according to the CDC, and it may take up to a decade for symptoms to appear. Most of the human population isn’t susceptible to the disease, and fewer than 300 new cases were reported in the U.S. in 2010…As many as 2 million people have been permanently disabled by the disease worldwide.

One of the instances where you don’t want to be the exception that proves the rule.

New strategy to protect a healthy gut from antibiotic-caused imbalance

Gut microbes promote human health by fighting off pathogens, but they also contribute to diseases such as diabetes and cancer. A study published March 19th by Cell Reports reveals a potential strategy for tipping the balance in favor of good bacteria by altering the composition of the microbial community.

A group of Portuguese and Spanish researchers found that a chemical signal called autoinducer-2 (AI-2), which bacteria use to communicate with each other, can promote the right balance of gut microbes in antibiotic-treated mice. The findings pave the way for therapeutic strategies that harness the chemical language of bacteria to foster a healthy community of gut microbes…

Antibiotic use and dietary factors can change the composition of gut microbes and strongly reduce bacterial diversity, posing a serious threat to human health by increasing host susceptibility to harmful pathogens such as Salmonella. In particular, shifts in the balance between Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes–the two predominant phyla in the mammalian gut–are associated with obesity, diabetes, chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, and gastrointestinal cancer. The ability to drive this community from a disease state to a healthy state, by manipulating the native signals and interactions that occur between its members, offers great potential for therapeutic benefit…

“These receptors could be used as new drug targets to alter bacterial communication,” says the study’s co-first author Rita Almeida Oliveira of the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência. “This strategy to control bacteria may be a promising alternative to avoid the increasingly serious problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics that are used today.”

Bravo. It would be great if research might latch onto a single class of communications which could aid maintaining a healthy balance of critters in your gut when it really is necessary to invoke the aid of antibiotics to fight an illness or disease.

Ecopesticides starts field tests of new method to stop crop-destroying insects

A New Mexico startup company has begun field tests to prove they can kill desert locusts in Africa using a natural bio-pesticide technology developed at the University of New Mexico. The company, founded by two UNM physicians, is taking on one of the oldest problems in history, the desert locust swarms that can completely destroy food crops in Africa.

They plan to kill the locusts by getting them to eat fungi that are naturally lethal to them. The idea is to encase the fungi in tiny spheres and spread them on fields of crops. The polymer spheres protect the fungi, which thrive in cool dark, humid places, from the dryness and ultraviolet rays of the desert sun until the locusts arrive in the fields. The locusts begin eating the fungi along with the crops and die.

“It’s all about timing,” Chief Science Officer of Ecopesticides Ravi Durvasula said. “If we could find a way basically to protect those natural compounds, those fungi a little longer – How much longer? A week longer, two weeks longer? We don’t know until we test it in the sites in Africa.

“But if we can have it last a little longer, presumably you would need to use less of it. And in these are subsistence farms, where literally every dollar counts, being able to put it out less frequently, maybe being able to store it a little bit longer would help. So we are trying to develop some heat tolerance as well. It would make a huge difference in this part of the world. And so that’s really the goal…”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is responsible for inspiring two physicians in New Mexico to think about locusts in Africa. The foundation has a major initiative to increase food security in Africa and the opportunity for a grant turned Durvasula and Adam Forshaw’s interest from the human impact of disease carrying insects to the human impact of crop destroying insects.

Durvasula is a physician and the director of the Paratransgenesis Lab in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Health Sciences Center at UNM. His research interest is exploring ways to genetically alter bacteria that can be inserted into insects to interrupt the infectious agent that allows transmission to humans. He began his research and teaching at Yale University more than a decade ago, eventually moving to UNM.

He was pleased to welcome Forshaw, a medical student with a background in chemistry, to his lab in 2012. Forshaw was doing the research portion of his medical degree and together, they went to work to find a way to disrupt the way sandflies transmit Leishmania parasites to humans. Durvasula was able to control the parasite in the laboratory, but the challenge was to control it in the field. Forshaw thought they might be able to use a chemical polymer to create small capsules to encase bacteria that transmit disease into insects.

That’s when the Gates Foundation grant opportunity turned the research in a different direction. Forshaw and Durvasula saw that their interest in controlling parasitic pests could be shifted to controlling crop destroying pests.

RTFA for more about how these two medical doctors transformed their research from infectious diseases to providing enough food to bring folks a healthy life.

Here’s the website home for Ecopesticides to check our their commitment and mssion.