Will our grandkids find Nemo? Hopes & fears for our big blue

plastic bottle floating

Source: www.abc.net.au

It’s hard to know how to feel sometimes about the future of our oceans.

A recent discovery of a plastic-eating bacterium had our office getting excited about the potential for combating the huge amounts of PET plastics floating around our oceans and waterways. A team of Japanese researchers, led by Dr Shosuke Yoshida from the Kyoto Institute of Technology, have discovered a new species of bacteria (Ideonella sakaiensis) that produces a never-before-seen plastic-eating enzyme. The amazing powers of this bacteria was found to completely degrade PET after 6 weeks.

Given that humans have been making PET for only 70 years (producing a whopping 45 million tonnes per year), the discovery suggests that this trait has only evolved relatively recently – who would have thought bacteria could be so exciting?? While the rate of degradation is considered to be very slow, these little guys hold exciting possibilities for harmlessly breaking down these awful environment-polluting plastics!

Fun germ

On the down side this week has also brought us the sad news that 95% of Australia’s northern Great Barrier Reef are now severely bleached (caused by abnormally high sea temperatures that kill the tiny marine algae essential to coral health) – a depressing and sobering statistic. And here’s another to kick you while you’re down: of the 520 reefs surveyed in the thousand-kilometre northern stretch of the reef, only four showed no signs of bleaching.

It’s the third such global event to occur since 1998, and scientists have found no evidence of these disasters to have previously occurred, based on 400 years of data gathered from coral cores collected by the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

bleached reef cape grenville

Aerial survey off Cape Grenville, northern Queensland, showing extensive bleached coral (Source: ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies)

Dr Jodie Rummer, Senior Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies has been undertaking research on Lizard Island since January 2012, one of the most pristine sites in the entire Great Barrier Reef.  Labelling the recent bleaching event as ‘catastrophic’, Dr Rummer also stated that “the combination of El Niño, climate change, and an extended period of hot summer days when the tide was exceptionally low has caused many of the corals that survived last year’s cyclone to lose their symbiotic algae and start bleaching”.

Meanwhile, the Queensland Tourism Industry Council’s Daniel Gschwind said the reef was not dead, and far north Queensland federal MP Warren Entsch said the Prime Minister was doing “enough” to address the bleaching concerns (negative publicity is obviously not helpful in Mr Gschwind’s industry, nor Mr Entsch’s tourism-dependent electorate). However, the ghost-white areas of reef are located further than most tourists travel and that reefs frequented by tourists were in much better condition.  While this is good for tourists, perhaps this means that the bleaching won’t get the attention it deserves.

It’s easy to feel the doom and gloom sometimes about the state of our environment, however, it’s research, innovation (remember those sea bin surfers?) and motivated people that will inspire us to work towards a world with clean oceans and a pristine Great Barrier Reef in which our grandkids can also find Nemo.


Source: Disney/Pixar