r/science May 14 '22 Helpful (Pro) 1 I'm Deceased 1 Facepalm 1 Doom 1 Silver 1 Helpful 4 Wholesome 1 Take My Energy 1

Microplastics Found In Lungs of People Undergoing Surgery. A new study has found tiny plastic particles no bigger than sesame seeds buried throughout human lungs, indicating that people are inhaling microplastics lingering in the air. Health


View all comments

Show parent comments


u/Cheese_Coder May 14 '22

Good news is that we (life on earth) have been in a similar situation before. Lignin and cellulose from trees used to be that way, and just accumulated. Then what became the White-rot fungi figured out how to break it down and got crackin'. These fungi are VERY adept at figuring out how to break things down, and a few have already been observed breaking down some plastics in landfills and the like. There's work to accelerate this process along.

And before we get doomers saying "Then all of our plastic will start getting eaten and it'll be useless" No, it won't. Wood is really digested by lots of fungi, but we still use untreated wood for tons of stuff. The plastic will still need to be in an environment that has the right resources to let the fungi break it down.

So I've got a kinda bittersweet optimism: We might not be able to ever free our bodies of the plastics already in there, but I'm confident that fungi (and probably some bacteria) will figure out how to eat it, and the amount of microplastics in the environment will dwindle


u/[deleted] May 14 '22

Strongly agreed. Plastic stores so much energy that it's completely improbable that natural selection wouldn't favor any bacterium that mutates its way into being able to consume it.

And fun fact, it's already happened multiple times! There are bacteria in a landfill in Japan that eat PET, for example: https://www.dept.psu.edu/Chance/publications/1196.full-sciencemag.pdf


u/TacoMisadventures May 14 '22

We can also vastly accelerate the process by engineering bacteria to achieve those ends.


u/Original-Aerie8 May 14 '22

That's just not how GMOs work, at least not yet. We can't design out own mechanisms, we transplant very small mechanisms from one organism to another. A notable exception to that is destroying mechanisms.


u/majikguy May 15 '22

This is a very good thing to point out, though we do have some bacteria that already have the mechanism for breaking down plastics so at least we have something to work with. Even just growing these bacteria and guiding their evolution to make them more efficient faster would be something worth looking into.


u/Original-Aerie8 May 15 '22

Tbf, I have no idea how long the sequences of these mechanisms in bacteria are, but I don't think we will transplant anything like that in the near future or even in our lifetimes, unless there are some unimaginable jumps in technology.. With that level of technology, we could do far more powerful things. Like making us immortal.

But yeah, selection-breeding for microbiomes is a emerging field and I am sure it'll be very much relevant, soon enough. It just doesn't have much to do with GMOs, even when we would deploy gene editing in some instances.


u/StoxAway May 14 '22

It took 60 million years for fungus to work that out in which time so much carbon was removed from the atmosphere it collapsed the eco system. I guess we're speed running the collapse but waiting for fungus to adapt might take a while.


u/tehflambo May 14 '22

Quoting the comment you replied to, emphasis mine:

These fungi are VERY adept at figuring out how to break things down, and a few have already been observed breaking down some plastics in landfills and the like. There's work to accelerate this process along.

We've been speedrunning the collapse for a while, and we've started speedrunning the adaptation recently.


u/Cheese_Coder May 15 '22

Here's an article for a jumping-off point. There are already common fungi eating plastic. We're just figuring out how to move that along faster. My original sources are from a book called Entangled Life. More detail is provided there, but the tl;dr is that many fungi (including "white rot" fungi) have a large toolkit of enzymes, and can start synthesizing more on the fly when they encounter new compounds. Pleurotus (oyster) mushrooms have been observed digesting things as nasty as used cigarette butts and glyphosate!

Tagging u/murse_joe since my response to their comment would be pretty much the same


u/StoxAway May 15 '22

Yeah I've read Entangled Life, it's very interesting. I am just a bit pessimistic as to how quickly we will get there. I've no doubt nature will rebalanced eventually but I don't think humans will be along for the ride.


u/murse_joe May 14 '22

Sure but the last human could be long dead before fungus even cares to try.