Nowadays, as the attention of the global community is drawn to discussions about whether the Coronavirus is man-made or not and the potential involvement of US biolabs in its creation, it is certainly worth mentioning the latest invention: a new “mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles for recycling in hours.”
According to The Guardian, scientists from the company Carbios created a mutant bacterial enzyme “that recycles plastic bottles in hours.” An article about this research was even published in Nature, a highly respected journal. “It’s a real breakthrough in the recycling and manufacturing of PET (polyethylene terephthalate),” said Dr. Saleh Jabarin, a Professor at The University of Toledo, Ohio and a member of Carbios’ Scientific Committee. “Our goal is to be up and running by 2024, 2025, at large industrial scale,” Martin Stephan, the Deputy Chief Executive at Carbios, stated. With that in mind, the Consortium, Carbios and L’Oréal, has partnered with other companies, such as Pepsi and Nestlé Waters, which will “help support the circular plastics economy using Carbios’ breakthrough enzyme-based enhanced recycling technology.”
Considering the fact that billions of tonnes of “plastic waste have polluted the planet, from the Arctic to the deepest ocean trench”, the bacterial enzyme is already being promoted as a novel solution to a global problem. According to the article in The Guardian, 100,000 micro-organisms were screened to find promising candidates, such as the “leaf compost bug”. Mutations were subsequently introduced into it “to improve its ability to break down the PET plastic from which drinks bottles are made.” It also said that the research team had “used the optimized enzyme to break down a tonne of waste plastic bottles, which were 90% degraded within 10 hours.”
In 2018, another team of scientists revealed “that they had accidentally created an enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles.” A separate report has stated that German researchers identified a strain of bacterium that can metabolize some of the chemical components that make up polyurethane (PU). PU in landfills decomposes slowly releasing toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that usually kill most bacteria. It was, therefore, surprising that the identified strain not only survived, but also used polyurethane to thrive. “This finding represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle PU products,” said microbiologist Hermann Heipieper from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Germany.
In light of recent developments, a cautionary tale comes to mind. It is about the creation of another “Chimera” in the United States: Mycoplasma laboratorium or Synthia, a synthetic species of bacterium. It can self-replicate and has numerous uses. Although there have not been many reports in mainstream media that Synthia was used to clear an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some suspect that it was. Apparently, in 2011, synthetic bacteria were introduced into the ocean to eliminate oil droplets that posed a threat to the environment. The poorly researched and thought through decision soon resulted in disastrous consequences, as the microorganisms became uncontrollable. There were several reports about diseases caused by bacteria, and deaths of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. Incidentally, all the aforementioned articles about the negative impact of the measures taken to deal with the oil spill were published by media outlets and not by scientific journals.
A number of news sources printed photographs that showed the effect of the cleanup on people and marine life. And according to The Huffington Post, the number of oil-eating bacteria, including the genetically modified strains, had been expected to soar as a result of the oil leak. Vibrio vulnificus (a species of Gram-negative bacteria) was suspected of proliferating in ocean waters polluted with oil and chemicals used to clear it. Vibrio can infect humans through contact with a cut or wound. Once in the body, “the bacteria infiltrates the layer of flesh between muscle and skin, where it releases a toxin that destroys the tissue.”
There were also reports about people whose deaths were attributed to Vibrio. Some of them passed away after having swum in the Gulf of Mexico. According to The Guardian, Vibrio vulnificus had “infected the shores of the Gulf Coast”, from Texas to Florida. In fact, there is no central authority tracking such infections in the USA, as individual states are not “required to report cases to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in Atlanta” but can do so voluntarily. The article stated that several people got sick after swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Vibrio can also cause sickness in humans who consume raw seafood, such as oysters. According to experts, the potentially lethal bacteria can infect people through raw or undercooked shellfish or through scratches and open wounds.
The scale of the impact of the efforts to clear the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been covered up by the US government.
There is no known treatment for Vibrio vulnificus and people can die as a result of infection with this pathogen. Having entered the blood stream via a small wound, the bacteria proceeds to damage tissue unless the infected part of the body is amputated.
Vibrio vulnificus, which can adapt to different environments, can eventually spread to the rest of the world via the Atlantic Ocean and rain clouds, and then cause fear among swimmers in oceans, seas and even rivers, and among those who consume raw sea food (including oysters and sushi).
As for Synthia, researchers who had created it said that they were creating new life from existing life. The synthetic bacterial cell can be utilized to develop more effective pharmaceuticals and efficient new biofuels, etc. However, experts also believe that the knowledge used to synthesize Mycoplasma laboratorium could also be employed to create a pathogen.
Researchers are currently studying the rate at which the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, mutates.
Microbiologists are well aware of spontaneous mutations caused by chance errors during replication of bacteria and viruses that can lead to changes in structural or colony characteristics.
Hence, we sincerely hope that the latest Chimera from Carbios does not play a similar dirty trick on us.
Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.