Teenage mutant ninja microbes – white biotech, home fabbing and the end of plastics

C Sven Johnson @ 15-04-2009

Sven Johnson worries about the pitfalls of the shiny new near-future… but not so you don’t have to. In this month’s Future Imperfect, he looks at what might go wrong when prosumer-grade fabrication technology incorporates biotech-powered materials recycling.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson


By now many of you are probably aware a prosumer 3D fabbing unit has been announced which incorporates a “white biotechnology” reclamation system. In effect, the unit will include a plastics recycling unit which converts some waste polymers (specifically varieties of common, low-cost polyethylene) into raw material suitable to be used in the fabbing process. It’s a development which is long in coming, but which also may signal the beginning of some unexpected developments.

From what I’ve read in the news recently, genetically modified, commercial-grade biotechnology-spawned viruses bacteria routinely mutate during their deployment, often as a result of mutagens common to industrial environments (e.g. bisulphates). While these mutations are (supposedly) contained and relatively benign, this may not be the case when consumer homes become sites for both production and reclamation. This has some people – myself included – wondering what kinds of scenarios we might face should an unlikely but plausible chain-of-events occur.

I’m neither a biologist nor a chemist nor a materials expert so I can’t speak with authority on this topic, but I’ve been around plastics for some time, so I can at least apply a little imagination to this issue. With that caveat, here’s one scenario based on the above fabber which is currently rattling around the inside of my cranium:

Imagine what might happen if our polyethylene-munching bacteria were to be continuously fed – in violation of the machine’s instructions (because almost no one reads or follows instructions anymore) – significant quantities of a non-digestible waste plastic. What then?

I’d venture that, like most organisms, our little future antagonists would adapt to their environment and develop a healthy appetite for whatever it is they are being provided; let’s say … polypropylene. Polypropylene is common so it’s not a stretch to imagine someone acquiring a significant amount of it and ignorantly dumping it into their recycling unit. Consequently, this individual (I’ll call him “User Zero”) has a 3D fabbing fermenter full of the wrong kind of bacteria; a mutant strain able to digest polypropylene and excrete something else.

Meanwhile, the parts being fabricated increasingly fail to meet the quality standards User Zero is expecting. This is, of course, because the recycler is pumping out the wrong kind of raw material. It’s unlikely the fabber would be able to properly manipulate this new material because, among other things, processing temperatures would almost certainly no longer be appropriate.

None of this occurs to User Zero who instead determines the bacteria must have indigestion and decides to clean up and start again; to dump the contents into a non-polyethylene storage container and conveniently dispose of it. The container into which the happy bacteria are sealed is, of course, made of … what else … polypropylene.

We’ve already established User Zero isn’t the brightest bulb in the DIY garage, so it comes as little surprise he puts the container out for city waste disposal pick-up instead of treating it as a biohazard. And of course, as usual, government policymakers are behind the proverbial curve, so there’s neither a public education campaign nor a material handling system in place for dealing with this sort of post-industrial, DIY-generated waste.

Right on schedule a municipal garbage truck retrieves the load of genetically modified, mutated bacteria and hauls it away. The innocent-looking polypropylene container – similar to what most people buy at their local superstore – is subsequently dumped onto yet another pile of waste plastic. Unfortunately for both the bacteria and the community’s residents, the pile consists largely of acrylic resin.

The bacteria is once again forced to mutate.

Acrylic is an interesting material. It’s a moderately high grade of plastic and, as a consequence, is used in a variety of applications where neither polyethylene nor polypropylene would be considered appropriate. In other words, the bacteria has moved up the quality chain; it’s gone from eating the equivalent of cheap store brand macaroni ‘n cheese pasta to a pretty good national brand.

While bacteria mutation strain number three is busy munching away on acrylic bits, I imagine the arrival of some dumpster-diving art students (because I can relate). Acrylic is a convenient material for student art projects, especially industrial design projects. There are tools and solvents and finishing methods readily available. You can score/snap it, bandsaw it, warp it and even vacuum-form it. Afterward, you can polish it up or paint it. Good stuff.

So into the student’s salvage box goes a healthy amount of scrap acrylic… and some of the bacteria.

Once back at the university there are a wide variety of vectors from the salvaged acrylic to, say, an outdated acrylic-based PMMA fiber optic system. And once in a PMMA network, there’s probably a fair chance of another mutation: to a bacteria which munches on perfluorinated polymers, the fiber optic material most often used by telecommunications companies to connect consumer homes to their systems; the so-called “last mile“.

I can imagine an entire community dependent on a PMMA-connected network brought to a standstill by our resilient plastic-eating friends. Now imagine if the original critter had mutated into a bacteria with a taste for top-of-the-line pasta: medical grade plastic.

Watch your implants, people. Life may be getting a bit more challenging in the near future.


Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the US military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]

Be Sociable, Share!

4 Responses to “Teenage mutant ninja microbes – white biotech, home fabbing and the end of plastics”

  1. Denni says:

    >>From what I’ve read in the news recently, genetically modified, commercial-grade biotechnology-spawned viruses…

    We’re talking about bacteria here, not viruses I suppose.

    While mutations may be common, I don’t think spontaneous adaptation of an entire novel pathway is particularly likely. But yes, if these fabbers end up in consumers’ hands, the bugs will end up in the environment. (Do you have a link btw? I’ve done a lot of reading about synthbiology recently, but haven’t come across this).

    Funily enough, degrading plastic featured in a story I was working on. Compounds that render plastic bags biodegradable are already in use and these can end up in some recycled hybrid plastics. This may be what renders the sandbags biodegradable which the council gave us during a flood alert last year. Now we have little piles of sand all around our house 😉

  2. csven says:

    Denni, you’re correct. I used the wrong word. I was thinking of bacteria modified by viruses (or that’s at least how I understand some genetic manipulation processes to work). And it’s not the only mistake I made (just caught another), but hopefully neither is too damaging to the central idea. Perhaps I can get the editor(s) to correct both. Thanks.

    As to whether this is likely, I’m also doubtful. However, that part I did include: “unlikely but plausible”.

    As to a link, this piece – this column – is near-future fiction. There’s been no such announcement. Apologies for any confusion.

    Interesting situation with the sandbags. Food for thought.

  3. kaiza says:

    I think this scenario is highly unlikely – while bacteria can and do mutate, the ability to readily change food source in the way you suggest is very unlikely (but i will steal your “I’m neither a biologist nor a chemist nor a materials expert” discalimer before i contintue). Before I go on it’s probably important to ask a few things.

    1. What is the environment the bacteria exist in? It may be warm and rich in oxygen, to help speed the breakdown process. Maybe they require extra chemicals to supplement their diet?

    2. What is the mechanism of breakdown? Do the bacteria actually EAT the plastic molecules, converting it into a waste form that we then use? If so, what is the chemical reaction?

    3. How different are varying plastic molecules? Consider – oxygen that we breathe is 2 oxygen molecules joined together. Ozone is simply 3 oxygen molecules joined together, yet it is dangerous to breathe.

    Also, it is important to understand natural selection and evolution – mutations are random.

    So, the bacterial likely need a special environment of some sort – leaving this, they may be susceptible to cooler temperatures, or UV in sunlight. They have to mutate new abilities (randomly!) that will protect them from these factors – before they die in what is likely to be a harsh environment.

    They must also be able to randomly come up with a mutation that allows them to eat polycarbonate. I would liken this to someone being born with the abilities of one of the X-Men. Mutations do not equal superpowers, and you do not suddenly get the ability to eat a new food source primarily because the chemical reaction that works on one type of plastic is not likely to work on the other. Thats because the “chemical reaction” i’m referring to is highly interdependent on a number of different functions and mechanisms within the bacteria’s body – functions which rely on different genes to code for different proteins and other chemicals – a number of which need to change simultaneously to facilitate a new chemical reaction that allows the bacteria to live on another food source.

    Ok, it’s still plausible. But plausible the same way it’s plausible that your computer may disappear into a vacuum right now. Or turn inside out for that matter. It’s not random in the “roll of a dice” sort-of-way. It’s random in a “roll the dice and get a million sixes in a row” sort-of-way. It’ll happen, but probably not before you wear out the dice.

    Yes, there are superbugs, capable of resisting the best medicine has to offer. However, they’re not EATING the drugs – resistance is a fairly simple mechanism, a change in a couple of proteins in the cell wall. Comparing this to being able to live off a new food source is akin to someone being born with green hair as opposed to being born with the ability to digest concrete.

    It is a nice idea, if you like to read Michael Crichton (in fact, read Prey or Andromeda Strain – but first read this). But I think that it’s far more likely that a lab would be the first to breed or identify a new type of plastic-eating bacteria, and that the caveats for the abilities of the bacteria likely mean that it is unlikely to become dangerous in the wild.

  4. Denni says:

    >>As to a link, this piece – this column – is near-future fiction. There’s been no such announcement. Apologies for any confusion.

    Lol! I read too much I think 😉

    Though it could be the very near future indeed.