Pandora’s Bug

Bacterial mats
Bacterial mats of Grand Prismatic Pool — Mike Goad, from Pixabay, Public Domain

How long ago it seems! But it is barely four years since I was a senior researcher at Porton Down, sitting on a shiny chair at a varnished desk and tapping the delicate keyboard of a lightning-fast computer. I was working on an exciting new project for an eco-friendly nerve gas. I would have laughed scornfully if someone had told me that today I would be thumping the worn keys of a manual typewriter made before I was born, whacking smeary letters through a home-made cotton ribbon smeared with soot and linseed oil on to my last few precious sheets of coarse brown paper.

But I have to set my story down. All kinds of stories are circulating about the Great Disaster and my part in it, and I must set things to rights, though in these days few will read my words.

It was on a sunny day in June 2020 that Pandora came into my office, her brown eyes flashing with excitement. Pandora Carton was one of my best postgraduates – such a shame what happened to her later. She was a small dark vital girl whom I must admit I fancied something rotten, but there was 25 years difference in our ages and everyone knows what comes of office romances. More to the point, she was as bright as a button, and if she was excited about something it was worth listening to her.

‘Prof,’ she said, ‘I think I’ve got something you’d like to see.’

Manfully ignoring any second meaning to her words, I set my computer to password-locked sleep and stood up. She led me to her lab bench, where there were several Petri dishes bearing dabs of a brown organism.

‘Do you have a plastic bag?’ she said. But of course I didn’t, since in those days they were considered the epitome of evil. ‘Anything made of plastic, no matter what kind,’ she went on, ‘but small enough to go into the dish.’

I found a ballpoint and gave her the cap, maybe made of polystyrene or ABS, who knew with these unconsidered things? She lifted the cover of the Petri dish, dropped it in, and replaced the cover. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘we’ll leave it for an hour, and you’ll see what happens.’

She wouldn’t tell me any more, so I went back to my desk and hacked away at some dull data until, sixty minutes later on the dot, Pandora bounced in gaily. ‘Now come and see,’ she said.

There was almost nothing left of the pen cap, just a little blob of blue plastic and even that was shrinking as I watched. But there was a lot more of the brown organism, which now nearly covered the dish.

‘OK, Pandora,’ I said, ‘this is a bacterium, right?’ – she nodded – ‘that eats plastics. Most plastics?’

‘I’ve tried it with just about everything – polyethylene …’

‘Poly(ethene),’ I said instinctively, miming the IUPAC-approved parentheses with my hands.

‘Oh shut up, Prof, you know what I mean. Polypropylene, PVC, polystyrene, ABS, polyurethane, acrylic, polyamide, polyester, polycarbonate, epoxy. Even urea formaldehyde – I really had to work to crack that one.’

‘That’s impressive, Pandora,’ I admitted with prissy reluctance. Actually I was blown away, not to mention consumed with envy. ‘But just what is this stuff?’

‘Well, I had to start somewhere, so I chose Streptococcus lactis. But its own mother wouldn’t know it now.’ She giggled. ‘I’ve done ever so much CRISPR on it to make it work all the enzyme stuff. Now it’ll depolymerise almost any plastic and use it as a feedstock, and the waste products are pretty much just oxygen and water, though it does get a bit whiffy with PVC when it gives off hydrogen chloride. Still, you’ve got half a litre of HCl sloshing about in your stomach so that’s really nothing to worry about.’

‘What about other polymers? Isoprene – natural rubber? Cellulose?’

‘Leaves them strictly alone. Look, Prof, I really did my homework on this.’

‘And what happens when it’s eaten all the plastics? Does it die?’

‘From what I’ve seen so far, it just goes dormant and waits for more. Oh, and another thing, the organism isn’t toxic. I fed some to the rats and they didn’t like the taste, but they’re fine. Ate a bit myself and I see why they turned up their little noses.’

‘That was brave of you – and bloody silly. Lucky it didn’t eat your little insides. Now, Pandora, are you thinking what I’m thinking?’

Her big dark eyes sparkled. ‘You mean, drop some in the Gyre and see what happens?’

Most of you will remember that there used to be a big circular current in the North Pacific where all the plastic debris from China and the west coast of the USA collected and circled endlessly, gradually falling to bits. Discarded fishing nets, lost cargoes from shipping containers fallen overboard, domestic rubbish – millions of tonnes of it, going nowhere but harming fish and birds and marine creatures of all kinds.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But we really need to make sure it’s safe.’ Looking back now, I realise that if she hadn’t been so pretty – if it had been spotty George with the tattoos – I wouldn’t have been so eager to press ahead.

But press ahead we did. It was ridiculously easy to grow the stuff. We didn’t need a bioreactor or temperature control. We just used a galvanised iron bucket, tap water and the plastic rubbish we had handy. Soon we moved up from the bucket to an old cistern we found in the cellar. We tried adding salt to simulate a marine environment. Growth didn’t falter.

We called the organism Streptoccus pandorae. It never occurred to me at the time what an omen that was.

Then we had a visit from the absurdly named Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – a portfolio that was a dumping ground for idiots who might have been dangerous elsewhere. I can’t remember what she was there for, probably something about improving our public image which was, to be frank, a bit sinister especially since the Novichok farce.

As she trundled through the lab making inane remarks, her eye caught our big rusty tank of brown gunge, which was giving off a faintly cheesy odour. ‘Ooh, what’s that?’ she asked. ‘It does look exciting.’

I explained simply, as was needed. ‘It’s a bug that eats plastic. We thought it might be useful to clean up all that rubbish floating in the sea. But we’re still testing it.’

How I wish now I’d told some harmless lie about sewage treatment. Under the crazed leadership of the day, politicians liked nothing more than looking green. The very next day we had an urgent visit from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, another haven for deadbeats.

‘I heard a rumour that you’ve got a magic bug that eats plastic,’ she burbled. ‘And that’s what we really, really need right now.’ She meant that it was what she needed to claw her way farther up the greasy pole. ‘And is this the brilliant inventor? What a step forward for us girls, eh?’ Pandora had the grace to try to mask her sneer.

We had to demonstrate it to her. It successfully consumed a yoghurt pot, a pair of tights, a length of polypropylene cord, a Lego figure of Darth Vader and a Bakelite knob from an old cupboard. She went off chortling about Britain leading the fight against climate change, as if that had anything to do with it.

Barely a week later, orders floated down from on high. The minister had really gone to town: now it was an international affair, Operation Ocean Save, with the Americans and the Japanese and even the Chinese involved. We were to decant our brew into 40-gallon oil drums, and it would be dribbled out over the North Pacific Gyre by an international fleet of cargo planes. Nothing about limited testing – just go for it. We had to do what we were told. By now there was enough for 300 drums, and RAF lorries arrived for it the following morning. I sent it out with a written warning, backed up by emails to everyone I could think of, that they were not to use plastic hoses to dispense it. And that was all I could do.

It worked – how it worked! Within a fortnight a visiting survey ship found no trace of plastic in the gyre, just a brown stain in the water and a faint smell of cheese. The media went into ecstasies. The ship returned to port with the paint stripped off the lower part of the hull, right down to rusty metal, and the polypropylene ropes they had used to haul up the water samples had rotted away, but in the general self-congratulation no one mentioned that.

The Nobel Prize committee held an extraordinary general meeting and created a special prize for biochemistry to award to Pandora. By tradition, as her superior and director of the project I could have put myself forward for a share in the prize. How glad I am that I didn’t. She looked utterly charming at the ceremony and gave a modest speech full of self-deprecation. She was the world’s darling, for now.

It was only a month later that the trouble started. Greta Thunberg, or to be fair her manipulative parents, decided that it would be a good publicity stunt for the wonder girl to visit the north Pacific and crow over the expulsion of the plastic demon. And of course she had to go by sailing boat. She took ship to Hawaii and headed north in a carbon fibre catamaran manned by photogenically hairy sailors secretly jetted in for the occasion.

The plan for the voyage was to skirt the southern edge of the gyre taking water samples to prove that no evil ‘microplastics’ – little shreds of plastic – were left, and then to return. It began well, and soon the world saw pictures of a grinning Greta holding a bucket and giving a thumbs up. But barely an hour later a distress call came in: they were sinking. A carbon fibre hull is made of fibres in a matrix of plastic, and this was dissolving and the material was unravelling.

A US Navy corvette was three hours away, and sped to the scene. Soon a picture was broadcast of a disconsolate Greta and the sailors sitting on the wooden deck planks of the boat, naked because their nylon and PVC yachting clothes had dissolved. But worse was to come. The corvette’s hull was made of fibreglass, and within an hour it was holed and sinking. Crew and passengers transferred to a Zodiac which sank in minutes, carried to the bottom by the weight of the outboard motor. There were no survivors.

The media mourn easily, and there were fulsome eulogies of the plucky girl who had given her all in defence of the environment. But there was no sober assessment of the way things now stood. A large part of the north Pacific was now off limits to anything but high-flying aircraft. No one thought of how over the past century we have come to depend on plastics, not just as a structural material but all importantly in the electrical equipment we take for granted, where plastics are essential for insulation. It was pure chance that the first ship to enter the area had not lost radio communication, navigational aids, even engine power through spills of the infested water that had been brought up to examine.

In terms of currents, the North Pacific Gyre is a closed system. The water just goes round and round. For a while the danger was contained. But a few months later a typhoon swept across the area, sucking up water from the sea into the clouds. The storm took a more northerly course than usual, and swept through Japan.

As high winds and heavy rain fell on Tokyo, the first system to fail was the mobile phone network. This was soon followed by cars breaking down in the streets as their electrical systems short-circuited. In hybrid and electric cars the batteries, deprived of insulation, burst into raging and unquenchable fires. The fire services were paralysed, as their vehicles were undrivable. A large part of the city burned to the ground and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost.

The firestorm lifted contaminated water into the air, and the bacterial plague swept westward across Asia. City dwellers were hardest hit, starving as the failure of transport deprived them of food. Riots broke out everywhere, largely unreported as communication was cut off too and no reporters dared enter the danger zone. But in the countryside subsistence farmers who had never much relied on electricity carried on with their lives. Those who had mechanical cultivators lost them, but there were always buffaloes, wives and children to carry out the heavy work. Probably in the rainforests of New Guinea there are still tribesmen who have no idea that anything has happened in the world outside.

A few weeks later Europe received the unstoppable organism, and now something new was noticed. In its time in the Pacific the bacterium had run out of the plastic it was designed to digest, and it had evolved. Now it could eat rubber – both isoprene, which is natural rubber, and neoprene and all the once familiar synthetic versions. Any hope that diesel cars could be modified to run without electricity vanished as tyres rotted and they were left standing on their rims. There was no more fuel anyway, as the tankers were rusting in port unable to move an inch.

Needless to say, both Pandora and I were quietly relieved of our posts – not that we had much to do, with all our equipment unusable. Food was running out, the boom of shotguns was heard in the shopping streets, and it was clear that civilisation had only days to run. On Pandora’s advice we collected what canned food, cartridges and seeds we could find and retired to a deserted farmstead she knew in an obscure Wiltshire valley, to keep ourselves alive by growing vegetables and stealing sheep.

The minister who was most to blame for the disaster was promoted to Home Secretary, as we learned later by word of mouth, because there was no more broadcasting. She never drew her salary: hours later the government fell, and anarchy has reigned ever since. Nor is there anything like money any more.

We had a few strenuous but happy months adapting to our new simpler life until disaster struck. Pandora went into the burnt-out ruins of Salisbury to forage for what was left, and never returned. Later a neighbour told me that she had been recognised, and was torn to pieces by the mob. Poor girl, she had nothing but good intentions; but that is the paving of the road to hell.

No one can even guess how many billions of lives were lost in the disaster. The world is a different place now. When I look out from the windows of the farmhouse I see new life everywhere, as plants and insects and birds and beasts recover from the mass poisoning of agriculture and thrive again – while we have poisoned our own existence. Yet a new and maybe a better mode of human life is emerging and perhaps, deprived of our destructive toys, we may play a more harmonious part in the world. Some kind of a community is beginning to emerge, though I shall never have a part in it. Folk are polite enough but I am a pariah, and no wonder.

As for myself I am coping for now, though how I miss dear Pandora! I am old and I shall not see many more winters, so I must confess my own part in the destruction of the former world. I hope that anyone who finds these sheets in a tin box in the ruins of an old farmhouse will look on my folly with forgiveness.

Copyright © Tachybaptus 2020

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