In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. The world held its breath as week after week, crews in the air and in the water searched for clues. Every once in a while, a glimmer of hope: search teams in the sky spot what they think is debris from the missing plane–only to find out that it’s trash. Carelessly discarded plastic garbage that now wanders on the water like men lost at sea.
Amid the frustrations of the search for Flight 370, a spotlight shone on another tragedy–the fact that we have turned our oceans into massive dumpsters. We dump an estimated 8.8 million tons of plastic into the ocean every single year (National Geographic). The problem is that plastic isn’t biodegradable–with a lifetime of more than 400 years, the plastic garbage in our oceans isn’t going anywhere unless we do something about it.
The fact that our beautiful oceans have become garbage dumps is an outrage in itself, but our negligence has even more far-reaching effects. Every year, marine animals are strangled by plastic debris. Birds starve to death because their guts, so full of plastic, physically can’t hold food. Chemicals from microplastics may even travel up the food chain into the fish tacos on your dinner plate and eventually end up inside you.
This summer, I’m working on a Bass Connections project on the bioremediation of plastic pollution. Our project was inspired by a 2016 paper written by scientists in Japan who isolated a bacterium that secretes enzymes which break down PET, the plastic found in single-use water bottles (See the 2016 paper here). The goal of my project is to create a library of mutant enzymes and select the enzymes which can most effectively break down PET. Hopefully, this project can contribute to future work on a solar-powered bio-reactor that can be used to clean up areas in need of plastic removal.
I’m really excited about my project! And really concerned about the state of Planet Earth…
If you’re interested in learning more about our planet’s plastic problem, I recommend this article and this article, both from National Geographic. And if you’re not into reading, check ’em out anyway! The pictures are pretty darn powerful.