Let them eat PET!

This is a pet project of mine. I’ve tried shopping it around in a number of locations.

Wondering what the folks trying to save the world with Hemp think of it.

It occurs to me that we can perhaps save the (baleen) whales by engineering their intestinal microflora.

given the ruminant derived fermentation tank they use for dealing with chitin, it should take only a handful of tweaks to their native bacteria to give them the capacity to digest the plastics we are force feeding them (PET for instance looks solved).

while such a strategy doesn’t (immediately) do a whole lot for the rest of the marine life we are killing with our trash, it seems to me like the only viable solution to removing micro plastics from the oceans is to give the filter feeders the ability to digest it.

I’m looking for smart folks who disagree, or are willing to take the idea and run with it.

the literature indicates we have many of the required pieces already, and I would posit that additional degradation pathways could be evolved with a little bit of directed effort (and some mutagens).

I’d even argue that Fukushima might have an upside when viewed from the right perspective.

what do you think?




Interisting topic, I wonder to what degree the plastic is digested. Perhaps the plastic moves through the animal in an uninvasive manner?
I wonder what by products the bacteria would produce after feasting upon the plastic. Potentially it could be more harmful, especially could be detrimental to reproduction. I can’t say for sure, I have no data on the subject. I’m going out on a limb here…:upside_down_face:


which is more than I could get out of the Society for Marine Conservation…

I guess it is possible that micro plastics, and even some of the bigger bits the whales are ingesting pass harmlessly through their digestive systems. I doubt it, but have no data one way or the other.

negatively impacting reproductive success would certainly not count as a pro…on humans yes, but that’s another project.

Finding the degradation pathways is the first step. Characterizing them is the next. Moving them is only encouraged once the pathway is understood, and the end points are defined.

At this point in the game I just want to get the idea out there. Thinking that a web comic might be the right approach.

I see Verity the Vigilante Virologist… pissed off with the way things are going down, she takes matters into the lab…in this episode she’s saving the whales with bacteriophage that confer the appropriate plastic degradation pathways to the extant intestinal microflora. in another she might take on that human reproductive success issue mentioned above.

Or an infectious cure for stupidity :slight_smile:
yes, that’s right boys and girls, Verity is sure she can fix stupid.
Or at least CRISPR a couple or five genes to increase intelligence.

The science doesn’t have to be perfect. Just close enough to inspire.

Verne and Asimov upped our game in such a fashion…


the reading I’ve done indicates that whales evolved from ruminants, and as such have a multi-chambered “stomach”.

What used to be a cellulose digesting fermentation tank, has been tweaked to provide chitin degradation. Primarily via evolution or recruitment of microflora to perform the new function.

Conceptually it isn’t a huge leap from biopolymer => biopolymer => man made polymer.

I believe at least one of the plastic degrading critters we’ve isolated was using a modified chitinase to perform it’s magic. It is not out of the question that whales could acquire this tek naturally, my concern is they don’t have that sort of time.

reformulating our plastics (using hemp) so they are more susceptible to biodegradation would also be a step in the right direction.

Which is why I figured I might gain a little traction here…


I agree, biodegradable plastics will help save our planet. The world's first mass-produced EDIBLE CUTLERY - YouTube this a cool approach without plastics


progress… at least from a recycling point of view.


don’t think the monomers produced here (ethylene glycol & terephthalic acid) are ideal for saving the whales, but if we’ve got a use for the things we might keep more of them out of the sea.

here’s a more accessible writeup


the enzymology to go from terephthalic acid to something more benign is also out there…


as is the ability to metabolize ethylene glycol: bacterial degredation of ethylene glycol - Google Search


thinks have progressed since I last looked at the literature.

seems that the microbes are on this already, and making progress worldwide.


thanks @Franklin!

attempts to rapidly figure out if anyone has LOOKED in human microflora stymied by “it’s our trash”.


Bump, in case someone missed it. :wink:



because we’re drowning in it.
they’re drowning in it.
shit ain’t just gonna go away.

unless the fungi get it done.
at which point they may decide its our turn.

just like they got the dinosaurs.


I did and Im glad u did…





Humic substances are the rainy day bandaid of biology.



Edit: wouldn’t let me post again so I’ll include it here.



If we can fold all the proteins we should be able to build enzymology from scratch in short order.

So what’s with leaving it to the bacteria or fungi to clean up our mess?

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The corporate giants who push plastic should be funding this idea. They fund keep America beautiful. The best way to prevent pollution is to reduce consumption, but corporate America really hates that idea. Give a hoot, don’t pollute…because the blame is on you for littering and not us for making all that plastic.


quick google-fu found

lmfao don’t put plastic eating fungi culture in the fridge

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so some nerds mod the strain to eat all kinds of plastics and then engineers design some kind of spraying device to spray the islands of trash with the lq and after that the nerds make it rain using cloud seeding and control the weather to make it perfect conditions for them to fruit

While I love the creative and divergent thinking element of this idea - I have a few intuitions that I think could create some pushback. For context - I studied Biotech in my undergrad (Independently and in classes) - and have always been focused toward pursuits of wildlife conservation. So I have a fair amount of knowledge in this domain that may hopefully provide some new perspectives.

1 - Regulatory. Outside of the ironicly ubiquitous Monsanto food crops, releasing genetically modified organisms into nature is at worst a legal issue, and at best being shunned by the academic community. So if a boots on the ground approach was taken with this solution, it would likely be stopped before it started.

2 - Microplastics have a tendency to absorb and retain toxic chemicals from their environment (say, dioxins or PCBs from a landfill) before hitting the ocean. This already causes so called “biomagnification” of those chemicals as they ascend the food chain and increase in potency in higher order predators. My intuition would be that having the ability to full break down the plastics in vivo would serve to increase the bioavailability of those toxins, amplifying their effects within the organism, which could be disastrous. Outside of this, I could not imagine the metabolites of plastic to necessarily be benefitial to the organisms

3 - A problem problem with genetic engineering most people dont think about is what I will for simplicity call “metabolic incentive”. Say an e.coli strain it engineered to produce some desired chemical. Engineered for efficiency the bacteria expends 10% of its metabolic resources producing this chemical, meaning it is 10% less effective at growth of itself than any mutants who deactivate that gene. Over time, you will notice the total number of bacteria producing your gene will diminish and be taken over by mutants who dont express your gene. Life is great at optimizing, so if left unchecked (or not engineered in a way to make your chemical production metabolically advantageous) it will optimize away your work. This is why people commonly make a master stock of freshly engineered bacteria and freeze dry it and use small amounts of the original strain rather than keep using the later colonies. So unfortunately in many regards, making something to take care of our problems on their own sadly may not be viable, or will take some extreme metabolism-craft.

That said - There is somewhere in the order of a metric fuckton of beautiful things this type of work can do in domains similar to this. The most riveting I have seen is modifying fungi and composting plastics with biomass. However this type of work is much easier (physically - Not so much mentally) than people think. All you would need to do is find openly available gene sequences (can be downloaded for free. easier than you might think) or isolate the gene that codes for your enzyme and have it sequenced (cheaper than you might think) and have some DNA printed (WAY cheaper than it sounds). Once you have that there are literally plasmid kits you can buy from fischer to do the ligation. Run some nice hot and cold baths with some salt buffer and BAM - You are now God.

Appreciate the thought provoking prompt @cyclopath - Great post to pop my Future4200 Cherry - Albeit a few years late.