From micro-plastics to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, everyone is aware of the scope of humankind’s plastic waste. It has long been known that plastic materials have been found in seafood, but new research has elaborated on how far plastic can permeate. Plastic bags have been found as far as the Mariana Trench, and studies have shown micro-plastics prevalent in our tapwater and salt. A recent study from Purdue University in Aug. 2018 studied 159 tap water samples across the globe, finding that at least 81% were contaminated, mostly with fibers between 0.1-5mm in length.
Another study completed 2015 in Shanghai, China researched the extent of micro-plastics in commercial table salt. From the 15 brands of samples taken from Chinese ocean coastal areas, lakes, and wells, sea salts were found to have a much higher content of plastic particles per kilogram (550–681 particles/kg in sea salts, 43–364 particles/kg in lake salts, and 7–204 particles/kg in rock/well salts).
This signals the abundance of micro-plastic contamination that occurs in the ocean, primarily polyethylene terephthalate, polyethylene, and cellophane.
A 2017 study also researched micro-plastic contamination in 17 table salt brands across 8 different countries: while micro-plastics were absent in one brand, others contained various plastic polymers , pigments, and amorphous carbon.
While the amount of micro-plastic in salt is negligible in terms of consumption health risks, this data indicates a gradual accumulation of contamination in the ocean, with little understanding of future consequences. Micro-plastics at sea have been discovered to host micro-organisms and could serve as a new habitat for potential pathogens, which can be spread and ingested globally.
Our epoch will be recorded for centuries to come, as the artifacts of our disposable lifetime remain, resisting decomposition. If the Holocene era was named to include both Bronze and Iron Ages, then ours will be called the Great Plastic Era.
However, at least with this nomenclature comes the realization that our generation faces a problem that simply isn’t going away. And through this understanding we can start to outline some solutions.
The more global climate change is acknowledged as a prominent issue, the more we fear for the survival of the ocean’s ‘rainforests of the sea’ – the coral reefs. For a long time, research was halted by the understandable fear of interfering in nature we didn’t understand. We worried that genetic interference of corals would be uncontrollable, and unforeseen consequences could arise.
Unfortunately, though many still feel this way, the state of the coral reefs today is in such dire danger that many researchers have gone ahead with designing and implementing ‘man-made’ corals into the seas. And it seems to be working.
Newly developed strains of algae have been made that can feed cross-bred coral, and protective bacteria are brought into the equation to counter the effects of warmer and more acidic oceans. The life cycle of a coral reef – from spawning to decomposing – is exceedingly complicated. Decades of research into this process are still not enough to fully understand how to truly replicate the amazing liveliness of a coral reef. Yet, with close to half of coral reefs gone and the threat of total extinction by 2050, its obvious why so many felt action was required.
The aim of most of these projects is to speed up the evolutionary process of coral reef development, rather that completely intervene. One such method includes adapting corals to cooler water temperatures, so that they can be hybridized with other species from warmer waters in a way that both are more resilient. Another slightly similar way is to work with the symbiotic algae (Symbiodiniium spp.) that provide a food source for coral animals. By increasing the algae’s thermal tolerance range, growth and photosynthesis rates can be greatly improved in the varying water temperatures, providing a greater source of energy to coral ecosystems than existing algae.
Another method is to interact with the probiotics that corals rely on. Just like gut microbes in human beings, corals can also benefit from specialized bacteria. A study in Brazil has been providing coral reefs with a variety of 10 types of bacteria that eat hydrocarbons – all in an attempt to help them survive oil spills. When trying to revive polluted marine ecosystems, we often turn to dispersing artificial materials to minimize damage. However, these can also prove just as toxic to the coral system we are trying to save. Introducing a consortium of bacteria has been shown to improve coral health by aiding the degradation of water-soluble oils and petroleum hydrocarbons. A similar technique is currently being studied that uses bacteria to ‘clean up’ the very reactive oxygen molecules produced when corals are under stress (which can start the coral bleaching process). Hopefully, one day we can simply spray on the bacteria mixture, strengthening and protecting the reef in one simple step.
Technically, these techniques do not merit the title of ‘lab-bred super corals,’ which is still a growing field accompanied by a whole host of naysayers. Part of this resistance is due to our lack of understanding. Genetic manipulation is still a hazy concept in the public’s eye, and scientists themselves are only starting to understand the full life cycle of spawning coral. In fact, the first research into replicating this life cycle was only published in November of 2017 by James Craggs. Although this was completed in a closed system far from the reefs in the tropics, it was the first successful inducement of coral spawning in an artificial environment.
“We really do need to intervene. We have caused this issue and morally I feel we should do something. There is an awful lot of work that goes on in reforestation: is this any different in principle?” – James Craggs
The primary goal of this research is to figure out what factors control the growth and spawning of coral reefs. Factors can range from anything from temperature and sunlight to the lunar cycle, and often occurs in the ocean in just one day of the year, making it incredibly difficult to study. From Craggs’ work, scientists have figured out how to create a spawning event every month – allowing for further research, but also presenting a path for immediate ‘reforestation’ of reefs. Corals can now be spawned on site, multiple times a year, using various new technology for in vivo construction.
One example of this technology is using concrete bases that grown corals on a tank-scale, which can the be wedged into the coral reefs without needing to attach them with adhesive, rope, etc. Another is commonly called the ‘badminton technique.’ Small, lab and/or tank-grown corals are created in the shape of a fan, which allows the coral to slowly descend through the ocean (like a badminton shuttlecock) and land safely on the coral reef. This is often used for reefs that have been extensively damaged by trawling, and do not need specific sites for coral growth.
I’ll end this article on a mixed note – half hope, and half worry. For even as we make leaps and bounds in discovering just what it means to take care of our reefs, its only a ‘stopgap measure’ until we solve the greenhouse gas problem. Rising temperatures will soon surpass our ability to quickly outsmart our problems, if left unchecked, and reef damage is on a global scale instead of the relatively smaller efforts conducted by restoration scientists. With more knowledge, however, always comes the possibility of a ‘miracle’ solution. At the very least, it has been found that only a small part of a whole reef is the source of spawning new larvae – perhaps we can still consolidate our efforts in a way that will have significant effect.
We, as humankind, are in the midst of a ‘Great Plastic Age’ – and its effects will last across the ages (see the Plastics section for more information). The most prevalent issue with plastic production is the problem of disposal, with many plastics estimated to degrade over the course of centuries or millennia, if ever. Have you ever used and disposed of a polyester PET water bottle? Then you’ve already left your own personal legacy, as PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) does not naturally biodegrade.
Chances are, if you’ve already reached this website, you are aware of the devastating effect our plastic waste has on the ecosystem. If we could stop producing so much plastic, that would be a tremendous aid; however, we are past the point of no return, with plastic lifespans exceeding our lifespans by far.
Luckily, bacterium has been discovered in 2016 that has naturally evolved to eat plastic (read the fascinating original article here). Since that day, scientist have been scrambling to use this knowledge to create a viable and efficient disposal system for plastics.
The bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, was discovered near a Japanese bottle-recycling dump and has also been spotted in some other PET-polluted sites. It is not only capable of breaking the molecular bonds of PET (polyester), but thrives on it. For those of the chemical mind: the strain, when grown on polyester plastic, produces two different enzymes that can hydrolyze PET as well as its reaction intermediate, which efficiently converts PET into two monomers (terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol). To clarify, the bacterium can live on the low-quality plastic, secreting two natural catalysts that break down the PET to its environmentally safe components.
Since this discovery, researchers have examined the structure of the I. sakaiensis produced enzymes, trying to figure out how such a strain could have evolved in response to our plastic crisis. Yet instead of an understanding of history, they accidentally tweaked an enzyme in such a way that they improved it…by 20%. While this is impressive, it also indicates that this newly encountered bacteria is also not fully optimized. Perhaps in years to come, we can use bacteria and enzymes as an ecologically safe alternative to harsher industrial catalysts. In fact, patents have already been filed by the researchers at the University of Portsmouth as well as by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
This is quite the difference from another strain of bacteria found in 2015 – Fusarium oxysporum cutinase (FoCut5a) – a fungus enzyme that has also been found to ‘eat’ PET plastics. For one, it is already much more efficient. Additionally, bacteria are much easier to control in industrial environments than fungi. In a scientific field that is constantly battling the cheap methods of ‘fresh’ plastic, economic constraints are highly applicable.
Despite changing public opinion, at this moment in time true change will need the support of our resistant governments and businesses.
There may still be a long way to go before we are truly capable of harnessing the rapid power of enzymes, but studies are indicating more and more that it is possible. If we could change the I. sakaiensis bacteria to survive at extreme conditions (above 70 C), for example, then we could degrade PET in its viscous, rather than glassy state, and improve degradation times by 10-100%.
What is truly fascinating is the popular theory that many of these strains may have evolved in response to the current plastic crisis. Perhaps with an open mind and powerful scientific teams we can discover more of these gifts and aids nature is providing us with.
As we explore the nature of our beloved seas, we must ask ourselves where we stand in relation to it. Are we destroyers or saviors?
This website is not meant to be a harbinger for the end times, but rather to act as a purveyor of hope for the future. It may seem as if every action to conserve and protect our waters is just one drop in a vast ocean, and yet without each drop that ocean would still be incomplete. With ingenuity, passion, and effort, the state of the world can be improved.
Join me in figuring out how.
Hello early birds! As you can see, I’m just now getting this website up and running. I welcome feedback, but please excuse the mess! -RP, 19/11/2019