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Earth Biotech Science

Pantry Pests Harbor Plastic-Chomping Bacteria 45

MTorrice writes In the U.S. alone, consumers discard over 32 million tons of plastic each year, only 9% of which is recycled. Polyethylene is one of the most popular and, unfortunately, persistent types of plastics. Bags, bottles, and packaging made from the polymer accumulate in landfills and oceans across the globe. Scientists have lamented that the material isn't biodegradable because microbes can't chew up the plastic to render it harmless. However, a new study reports the first definitive molecular evidence that two species of bacteria, found in the guts of a common pantry pest, can thrive on polyethylene and break it apart.
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Pantry Pests Harbor Plastic-Chomping Bacteria

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  • So, you couldn't enumerate WHICH "pantry pest" or which species of bacteria to which the articles refer? The URLs for the links are also in shortened form, so you can't even tell what the article is about due to the URL.

    I really wish that we, as an internet, could move on from such terrible tactics to scrape viewership, though I will give the writers points for not starting the title of the article with the word "These" or for not putting a number in the title. I think. I didn't click the links.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I would have guessed it was this critter (and now I know its name).
      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Those things are unholy terrors. Chewing right through the cardboard and plastic into unopened boxes of food, with holes so small you don't see them, and you can only see the infection when it's gotten so bad that your food is all webbed up with their feces. The larvae pupate for varying lengths of time, as much as many months, so they keep coming back long after you try to treat the problem. And they don't need much food to keep going. It can be many month or multi-year battle to completely get rid of them

    • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Thursday December 04, 2014 @02:01AM (#48520499) Homepage Journal

      They don't write like that for clickbait. They write like that because it's easier to read. Newspapers were writing like that even before the Internet.

      Back in the days of paper, I wrote for a scientific newsletter. I actually wrote a couple of stories about plastic-digesting bugs. I used to pack as much information as I could into the first 150-200 words, like a journal abstract.

      Then I got a freelance assignment to cover a scientific conference for a wire service. I read a few of the wire service's stories, so that I could write in the same style. I was surprised to see that the lead sentence didn't have a lot of details about the name of the microorganism or whatever. They just wrote a short English sentence, as simple as possible, explaining what the story was about.

      Then they'd have the specific details further down.

      Sure enough, it was easier to read. And it was a little easier to write, too, especially on deadline where I don't have time for a second draft.

      I looked around and I saw that most newspapers and trade magazines did it that way.

      Yeah, there was an element of suspense to it, but the main purpose was to start out with a simple sentence.

      The most demanding writing is for the radio. If somebody is listening to my wire service story on the radio, that lead has to be very simple. I don't want him to say, "Wait -- was that waxworms?" Get to the waxworms later.

      I used to read CEN and ES&T, and I knew some of the people who wrote for it. Believe me, they don't need clickbait. They're a professional society magazine, and they're writing for their members, who get it free, but if the members don't read it, the publisher fires the editor and hires a new one. They're desperately trying to give their busy chemist members clearly-written, useful information with no bullshit, and they do a good job.

      The tile of the ES&T article is, "Evidence of Polyethylene Biodegradation by Bacterial Strains from the Guts of Plastic-Eating Waxworms." Is that enough for you to chomp on?

      Later on, you find out that the insect is Plodia interpunctella, and that the gut bacteria were Enterobacter asburiae YT1 and Bacillus sp. YP1. Do you really want that in the first 250 words?

      It is true that if I were writing for bacteriologists, and they were waiting to find out which bacteria, I would put it in the lead. I can hear them saying, "E. asburiae! Who would have guessed?" But for most people, that detail can come later.

      • They don't write like that for clickbait. They write like that because it's easier to read.

        Seems to me that click-baiters also write like that.

        How do you tell the difference? Without just "knowing"? i.e., There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of scholarly sites. And entirely unknown numbers of click-baiters.

        • by nbauman ( 624611 )

          They don't write like that for clickbait. They write like that because it's easier to read.

          Seems to me that click-baiters also write like that.

          How do you tell the difference? Without just "knowing"? i.e., There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of scholarly sites. And entirely unknown numbers of click-baiters.

          I know what I write, and I know why I write it. I was writing like that before the Internet.

          I should back off a bit, though. After I wrote that, I looked over some of my stories to see how I actually wrote the lead. Sometimes I did put the specific details in the first sentence. Here's one:

          "Rituximab was superior to azathioprine for maintaining remission in antineutrophil cytoplasm antibody-associated vasculitis."

          So that tells you everything you want to know in one simple sentence.

  • by toygeek ( 473120 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2014 @07:34PM (#48519055) Homepage Journal

    Wiggly Woodworms Want Wayward Waste, While We Wonder Why Woodless Worms Won't.

  • Great idea. This will allow the plastic to be chewed up into smaller pieces so it can be more easily digested by marine organisms and so many other things. A plastic water bottle is a bit too large to enter the food chain so I am glad that researchers are finding to ways to make sure all plastics can be broken into small enough pieces that they can be easily ingested by marine creatures who mistake them for sea life. *Hits hand on forehead*. Remember the success already achieved with "biodegradable" plastic

    • I hope it doesn't turn out like other substances that accumulate in us (the heavy metals) with no apparent ill effect until toxic levels are attained.

      If forced to wager the electricity bill money,however, my hunch is that's the way to bet.

      In Water for Elephants, drunks given to jake leg referred to the additive responsible for their loss of locomotion as a plasticizer... The compound was added to the thinly veiled 'medicinal' product as a cloaking chemical for the government's testing process during the

    • Re:Great Idea..... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by khallow ( 566160 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2014 @08:36PM (#48519329)
      Excuse me, but could you lose your shit on somebody else's internet? I'll just note that this goes beyond making plastic pieces smaller, since the bacteria are actually digesting it and breaking it down into smaller, simpler, more digestible molecules.
    • The electrical wires in your house are insulated in plastic. Fortunately it's PVC, not PE, but if the bacteria mutates again, things could get way too interesting.

      The Fall of Cities in the Ringworld books comes to mind. At least ours are not levitating on superconductors.

    • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Thursday December 04, 2014 @12:36AM (#48520175) Journal

      It doesn't turn into small pieces of plastic, it turns it into ~starch.

      Polyethelene is (C2H4)nH2, where n is large. In other words, it's a long chain of carbon-hydrogen units.

      Sugar and starch, on the other hand, are chains of carbon-hydrogen-OXYGEN units. If the chain is short, it is called a sugar, long chains made are called starches. All animals get their energy from these starches and sugars. Short chains (sugars) are easier to digest than long chains (starches).

        So the frustrating thing is that the big differences between plastic and starch (food) is the oxygen atom, and the length - polyethene molecules are even longer than starch. If you add oxygen to plastic and cut the molecules apart, you'd end up with food, except the plastic doesn't allow the oxygen molecule in.

      This bacteria does that difficult trick, it forces oxygen atoms in, splitting the molecular chain in the process. After the bacteria does its thing, the result is more like starch than plastic.

      At this very early stage, initial testing with this exact microbe didn't immediately dispose of large amounts. That would take more time, more of the bacteria, or a better version of the bacteria.

    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      are you trolling or just fucking stupid? the point is that this breaks it down from being plastic anymore - not mechanical breaking down, which is how the plastic ends up in the guts in the first place.

      you seriously don't understand the difference between something biodegrading/getting turned into different molecyles and something mechanically getting chewed up into small particles?

  • Deobfuscated Links (Score:4, Informative)

    by khellendros1984 ( 792761 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2014 @08:24PM (#48519281) Journal
    A new study reports []
    molecular evidence []

    Because fuck using URL shorteners when they're unnecessary. It's better to know at least the domain that a link will take you to.
  • by manu0601 ( 2221348 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2014 @09:37PM (#48519543)
    Indeed polyethylene is persistent, but at least this one is not an endocrine disruptor. I just wonder why we do not recycle it more. It looks stupid to spend money cracking crude oil when you can start with already clean polyethylene.
  • by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Thursday December 04, 2014 @01:52AM (#48520477)

    Semi Hard SF for the win... again. Read this when I was very young.

    http://quillandkeyboard.blogsp... []

    Mutant 59 is an excellent example of the British specialty; the quiet catastrophe. By altering one small part of the normal world, removing plastic, Pedler and Davis set into motion a series of events that wreck ever-expanding circles of devastation. As plastic insulation vanishes, wires spark and fires break out. Airliners crash or explode in midair. Submarines vanish. Gas leaks from sealless lines. The entire infrastructure of London literally decays. It's a truly frightening scenario that makes one realise just how the failure of something we take for granted can imperil our entire civilisation.

    • Yes, I was surprised this article was collapsed on the main page. The potential for problems if bacteria start eating through common plastics is enormous.

    • Once the plastic is all gone we'll be primed for the Solar Flare CME to blast clean what's left of modern technology, which would then set off all the nuclear weapons.
      Roland Emmerich needs to get going on this!
  • Pantry Pests Harbor Plastic-Chomping Bacteria

    Okay, admit it. Who else misread the first word?

  • I see a solution coming up for the plastic soup in our oceans. What could possibly go wrong?

  • This reminds me of a cautionary tale in the form of an SF novel titled Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters [].

    I read it back in 1972, while in high school, but remembered the "lesson" it taught about cultivating and developing "Scavenger" bacteria.

    Before you applaud this discovery, you might give that book a read...

    Jus' Sayin'...

We cannot command nature except by obeying her. -- Sir Francis Bacon