Plastic-Eating Enzyme Can Help Save A Plastic Planet

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(H/t to Tom Hochbaum for the tip, and for the ideas on what to write about)

I was looking online for a picture of the garbage vortex in the south Pacific, and having a surprising amount of trouble. It’s this Texas-sized patch of garbage that, coming from the land and borne by currents, has been swirling and collecting for decades. It’s pretty famous, so I was kind of frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a good image of it, until I remembered: it’s the size of Texas. 

How do you capture such an image? Have you ever seen a non-satellite photograph of all of Texas? Of course not. It’s impossible, just as it is impossible to imagine a garbage pile the size of that vast emptiness.

But it isn’t a fantasy. It is real. Even though the garbage patch is dwarfed by the enormity of the ocean, the idea that the waste of our civilization is gathering, and gathering size, is sobering and terrifying. Here are some horrible details.

The Patch is estimated to cover as much as 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean and it’s made mostly of tiny pieces of plastic that are the result of the process of photodegredation. Since plastic is non-biodegradable, it remains a polymer while the sun can only break it into smaller and smaller pieces. Once these pieces are small enough, fish and other aquatic animals mistake the plastic for plankton and ingest it. Even the plastic that isn’t eaten leeches harmful chemicals into the water, including pesticides, chemical byproducts, and toxic solvents. As a result, the plastics and chemicals that are consumed by the fish end up in our food supply. Delicious.


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This is Henderson Island. It is uninhabited.


It’s unsurprising that much of the waste is plastic. Plastic is a genuine miracle substance which has inarguably made life easier, but which lingers for centuries, choking our rivers and seas, filling our landfills, manifesting itself with hideous ocean-carried wreckage in the world’s most remote islands or as microplastics in the Great Lakes. Plastic bags flutter like ragged broken-spine scarecrows throughout the sky, catching themselves on trees and bushes, or drowning themselves in the sewers, soggy with a wordless permanence.

It takes thousands of years for plastic to break down. Which is why we’re so excited that there is genuinely great news about our addiction.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.

The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

That’s absolutely astonishing. The natural evolution of an enzyme that can eat plastic is amazing enough, and shows the incredible flexibility of nature, which will eventually restore itself even if we kill ourselves off. It’s amazing that scientists could study its DNA, and tinker with it, and make it better, even if accidentally.

And it is just tear-inducing that they also think they can make it better. That they recognize a huge problem, have scoured the world to find a solution, and then, piece by piece, issue by issue, calculation by calcuation, they make it better. That they can use enzymes to offer hope in what seemed like an intractable problem.

That isn’t to say we should all start stocking up on plastic bottles and throwing them immediately away, because we’ve been saved. We should still strive to use as little plastic as possible, and recycle it as much as we can.

It doesn’t let us off the hook for the damage we have done, and continue to do. (Nor, I should state, is this a sure thing: there could be greenhouse ramifications, but that’s the best part of science. They’ll find out!) It doesn’t bring back the jetsam of our endless inventiveness.

It should still make you teeth-gnashingly angry, or at least frustrated and sickened, that we can wreak such havoc on such remote and unpopulated places, just by sheer dint of our material existence. And we’re all complicit. Lord knows I’m as guilty as anyone, through laziness and love of convenience.

But thankfully, there are a lot of people who don’t take “meh” for an answer. Thankfully, there are people who are working on mitigating and maybe even expiating our sins, and who can both invent new solutions and have the wisdom and flexibility to take advantage of happy accidents, of nature working in its own way to adapt to our impositions.

We aren’t saved. Nature doesn’t work quickly, which makes our outsized impact all the more stark. But it’s also true that our solutions are part of nature, since we are still, for all our inventions, part of nature. This odd and serendipitous partnership with a hungry enzyme might just be part of regaining that balance.

Wait, Mitch McConnell is actually the Worst


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This is not an unfair picture; nullification has always been the heart of the Mitch McConnell project


It’s easy to get lost in the bloated malevolence of Donald Trump, or the poor-killing piousness of Paul Ryan, but we shouldn’t forget about Mitch McConnell, who may, actually, be the worst.

I don’t know if there has ever been a more cynical politician in my lifetime, or maybe ever. Bill Clinton watched a mentally-handicapped man get execute to prove his tough-guy bonafides, and that’s unforgivable calculated cynicism. Ronald Reagan stoked every fringe anti-government group while climbing up the ladder of governmental power, which is pretty damn cynical.

Then there are guys like Tom Delay, who spoke the language of the Christian Right while using its gulls as a side-hustle, raking in cash and giving the money guys a free hand in the temple. You also have dudes like Newt Gingrich, whose cynicism is extreme self-righteousness, able to levy teary empurpled criticism at those who won’t respect the results of elections. That’s breathtaking.

But still, there’s no one quite like Mitch, and arguably, there never has been. Sure, there may have been people more cynical, but not in our media climate, and not with the right wing what it is. He’s able to do the most blatantly political actions, without any regard for a right or decent outcome, while blaming the other side for doing exactly what he is. He’s a master at it.

One of my “favorite” examples, which I described as nearly Escherian, was funding for research into the Zika virus. The Republicans blocked any funding for months, refusing to give Obama a “victory”, as if helping pregnant mothers from a deadly airborne illness was anything other than the baseline responsibility of the government. And then they finally put Zika funding in a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood and weaken environmental protections. Obviously, Dems would vote against that. Mitch?

(P)ut Hillary Clinton in the White House and I promise you this, she will double down on the cynical approach that Senate Democrats seem to revel in these days.

Here’s what I mean. As we sit here tonight, a terrifying mosquito born illness threatens expectant mothers and their babies along our southern coast. And, just last week, just last week, Clinton Democrats in the Senate blocked a bill aimed at eradicating that virus before it can spread.

I mean, what can you do? It’s breathtaking, especially when he describes the Dems as using a “cynical approach”. And that’s far from the worst. This quote, during the hearings for Neil Gorsuch, reveal a pathological depth I can barely comprehend.

“This is the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said after describing Democratic opposition in the past to Judge Robert H. Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas. “And it cannot and it will not stand. There cannot be two sets of standards: one for the nominees of the Democratic president and another for the nominee of a Republican president.”

This, of course, after a year of blocking Merrick Garland, whom Barack Obama nominated for the Supreme Court during his four-year term.

That’s why Mitch is actually the worst. It isn’t that he is frustrating, or just that he is deeply cynical. It’s that he is actively working against our democracy, destroying the norms that are far more important than laws in keeping our country together. He has no baseline decency, and does literally anything for his side to win.

The Merrick Garland blockade wasn’t merely a power play. It wasn’t just a maneuver. It wasn’t clever, and it wasn’t about winning elections. What Mitch McConnell did (with, it should be said, the entire party and surrounding media environment parroting his squawking righteousness), was nullify the re-election of Barack Obama.

There can’t be any other word for it. Obama was elected for another 4-year term, resoundingly. Part of that is being able to nominate justices, especially on the Supreme Court. There has never been an election in our history where people didn’t talk about its ramifications for the Court. Everybody voting knew what was at stake, knew that Presidential perogative, and we voted for Obama.

And McConnell said no. He said no because he knew that, ultimately, there was nothing that could stop him.

He realized this after Obama’s first election, when he could be as obstructionist as he wanted, and take away all Presidential rights, because he’d be supported by his party and media. He realized that there were no real mechanisms outside of decency to compel him to follow the spirit of the law. And that’s been his whole career.

His entire career, both as minority and as majority leader, has been to shred everything that makes our government work. And in doing so, he’s ripped to pieces the idea of a self-governing people. By breaking these norms, he’s accelerated the devolution of politics, which is really nothing more than the decided self-expression of a free people, into face-painted bloodsports.

When he does whatever he can to delegitimize a party, to nullify an election, to ruin our norms, he is just as much an anti-democratic tyrant as Donald Trump. Which brings me, 800 words later, to the point of this.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has said he will not allow a vote on a bill that would protect the special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by Donald Trump, despite bipartisan concern that the president will act on an impulse to end the Russia investigation.

McConnell said on Tuesday that he did not believe legislative action was necessary because Trump would not fire Mueller, who is overseeing the FBI investigation into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia.

“I don’t think he should fire Mueller and I don’t think he is going to,” McConnell said during an interview on Fox News on Tuesday. “So this is a piece of legislation that’s not necessary, in my judgment.

That’s right: he won’t even allow, because he doesn’t think the President is going to fire Mueller. That would be considered optimistic, if you had any notion he believed it, or particularly cared.

He doesn’t care, of course. Sure, he couches it in the language he has to, that he doesn’t think Trump should fire Mueller, though you can almost physically feel his slump-shouldered shrug through the computer. And he later says that Trump would veto any bill, so what’s the point?

This is rich, of course, coming from a man who sent Obama bills to overturn Obamacare. That was also a probably veto! But the outcome didn’t matter; what mattered was letting his members vote on repealing. And that’s what matters to Mitch here.

Because, make no mistake, even if the bill is “bipartisan”, its Republican sponsors represent a very small minority in their caucus. McConnell doesn’t want the bill to come up not because he is afraid of it passing, but because he knows most of his party would vote against it. And he doesn’t want that on their records, because he knows it would be terrible.

There’s no leadership. There’s no attempt to persuade. There isn’t even the recognition that he has a slight duty to protect the country from Trump, or from encroaching authoritarianism. There’s only the desire to protect his party from taking a vote that he knows will make them look awful.

Mitch McConnell, no less, and probably much more than Trump, has broken our democracy. His entire project has been too degrade the fragile bonds that keep our system together. And he’s been successful.

Trump saw and rode anger and discontent and outright racism to the top. He understood it, lives in it, and knew it matched the rot of his own character. He saw that fundamental American disease, saw it is a weakness, and used it.

Mitch saw something different. He saw that we were more than our Constitution. He saw that we weren’t really a nation bound by laws, but that we were an ongoing experiment in how to create a self-government. We were meant to keep changing, and that meant accepting and participating in unwritten rules that bind us together.

For most people, that’s a strength. That America is an experiment, that it is meant to evolve, that we are bound to our political destiny with each other, and not holy script, is a strength. But Mitch McConnell uniquely saw it as a weakness, and used it against itself. He perverted the experiment. He made it in his own impossibly cynical image, and the country is now the monster he created.

So yeah, he’s probably really the worst of the bunch. But what he broke can be repaired. This isn’t a call for bipatisan decency or anything. That’s a weakness McConnell exploits. It can be repaired by crushing them in November, and then in 2020, and getting rid of all the miscreants. It can be repaired by actually taking back the government, and remembering that it can be the very best of who we are, instead of befouled by the very worst.