Could micro-organisms be starting to evolve that consume oceanic rubbish?

Where are polyestermites when you really need them?

The polyestermite was a once-famous April Fool’s joke perpetuated in Yachting Monthly by then editor Des Sleightholme to explain the effects of osmosis. Boats were being gnawed away by infestations of pesky microbes.

Like all good April Fool’s japes it was preposterous yet possible to fall for. Ironically, it preceded another microscopic creature that, by the same measure, would have seemed laughable but has become a genuine pest: the diesel bug.

As it turns out, Des Sleightholme was unwittingly on to something: we probably could use a creature able to consume discarded plastics.

There has been a lot of press recently about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an allegedly huge tract of plastics and chemicals trapped in the North Pacific Gyre, and its corollary in the Atlantic.

Reports variously estimate that the area of litter is the size of Texas/twice the size of the US/six times the area of the UK (exact size to be filled in with some enormous area close to the readership’s heart). No one can quite agree on the extent because it is not precisely measurable.

Scientists say that while a large area undoubtedly exists it is invisible by satellite because the debris field consists not of solid objects but particulate suspended in the upper portion of the water column.

However serious the problem, it stands to reason there must be a vast amount of debris in the ocean and that it would tend to collect at the centre of an ocean current’s circulation – what’s being called ‘the Plastic Vortex’.

There are many first hand reports of very large areas of oceanic rubbish. I have spoken to several sailors who told me they’d come across large rubbish patches in the zone of the South Atlantic High.

Several sailing projects are trying to draw attention to this problem: the Junk Raft project; Project Kaisei; and, most recently the Plastiki project, which I blogged about HERE.

We all do need to recycle more and cut down on our use of plastics, but what if a relative of the polyestermite or the diesel bug could devour the garbage?

It is thought that bacteria or nano-bacteria that consume plastic already exist. Organisms can actually evolve to live off previously unknown substances.

For example, in the Seventies a strain of flavobacterium was discovered that used a hitherto unknown enzyme to digest nylon, a material that was only invented in 1935.

Evolution can and does spring into action. The polyestermite theory is a potential adaptation that might solve the plastic garbage problem –  and it’s probably another pressing reason to clear up before that happens.