If there is something we’ve all learned from science fiction, it’s that the Earth has a way of adapting. You see it imagined in the TV show Life without People, in the outside world of Logan’s Run, or in your own garden if you don’t trim back honeysuckle, ivy, or mint. Nature figures out a way to reclaim what it has lost. Many would call this the Gaia Principle or Gaia Hypothesis. Simply defined, the Gaia Hypothesis proposes that organisms (plants, animals, you and me) interact with inorganic materials (rocks, metals, gases like carbon monoxide), and create a complex, self-regulating ecosystem that maintains the balance needed to support and perpetuate life. Every sphere that comprises the Earth we know—the biosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrospheres and the pedosphere—are constantly changing. They are a complex system of elements, but are continuously evolving. The Gaia Hypothesis contends that our planet, Gaia, naturally strives to create the optimal physical and chemical environment essential to support life.
This theory is why we sometimes picture the distant future something like this…
Image: Logan’s Run, 1976, MGM Studios
That’s the thing about the Earth. It has a way of coming back, regardless of what is thrown at us, and sadly, we as a species have been throwing a lot at it. I’m not talking about carbon emissions from our automobiles or industrial pollutants. An estimated 311 million tons of plastic is produced every year globally. That means more plastic exists than fish in the sea. Not what you would call a happy thought from any perspective, but here’s a glimmer of hope for you to consider. One of the key elements of plastic is Polyethylene Trephthalate or PET. PET is used for manufacturing plastic bottles and comprises of one fifth of plastic’s annual production. Now PET’s strength and stability under heat is what makes it ideal for packaging, but these properties also make it difficult to decompose.
Now Gaia has decided “Enough is enough…” as scientists have discovered bacterium which feeds on PET. It’s called Ideonella Sakaiensis 201-F6. Researchers in Japan have isolated this bacterium from 250 samples from PET debris collected from recycling plants, and found this bacteria pairing two enzymes together that slowly breaks down PET over a six week period at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or 30 degrees Celsius. This new discovery, while amazing on a larger scale, hardly came as a surprise. “If you put a bacteria in a situation where they’ve only got one food source to consume, over time they will adapt to do that,” states lead researcher Enzo Palombo from Swinburne University, “I think we are seeing how nature can surprise us and in the end the resiliency of nature itself.” In this particular case, the bacteria had to eat something and all they had was plastic, so they evolved in order to survive. And unlike some spookier science fiction stories about evolution, this is the kind of evolution that is a breakthrough in dealing with environmental issues.
This gift from Mother Nature is, by no means, a good reason for us to stop recycling when and where we can. Ideonella Sakaiensis 201-F6 will have limited impact now, but scientists believe this new bacteria points to the future, a safe and natural way to decompose all the plastic gathering in landfills. It also points to the Gaia Hypothesis, and that maybe there is something to it. Whether you buy into the hypothesis or not, that doesn’t rule out the truth that presently Spaceship Earth is the only option we have now. Sure, we’re looking at Mars; but that is still a far ways off. How about we concentrate on the current planet we’re on.
If bacteria can go green, why not the rest of us?
A research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.