Aligning manufacturing with nature is a massively important step toward becoming sustainable stewards of Spaceship Earth. In part, it will require addressing the existing consequences of industry and confronting pollution in partnership with nature.
Since the age of advanced chemistry in consumer products that took off in the middle of last century, the things humans make are more useful, durable, and affordable than ever. But that means they are often made of plastics and chemicals that extend more thoroughly throughout our ecosystems and stay there for much longer, even forever. Science is still working to understand the extent of pollution to Earth’s waterways, soil, even our own bodies.
Among the most concerning pollutants are polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, the ‘forever chemicals’ used to manufacture nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, and countless other applications since manufacturers started using them in the 1930s. These days, they are being discovered all over the place, including the bloodstreams of almost every human being. Thankfully the PFA levels detected in humans have gradually declined as awareness has increased, but their presence in groundwater and food remain a real risk.
But where life is being harmed by such chemicals, life may also offer the solution: the endless creativity of microbes.
Within their tiny, often single-celled bodies, they contain the tools for creating and breaking apart endless varieties of chemicals. We harness these abilities to create things like citric acid to enhance our food, or ethanol for fuel. Microbes are even behind many of the vitamins we take to stay healthy, and countless other important chemicals.
Humans have been replicating microbes for millennia, in the form of fermentation, encouraging Lactobacillus bacteria to create lactic acid in a crock of sauerkraut, Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast to create alcohol in a vat of beer. Fermentation is vast, but recent advances in parsing the DNA of different microbes given humans the ability to access and apply previously unknown or undetectable microbial abilities.
For instance, among the most exciting to emerge recently is the discovery of bacteria that consume PFAs as food, currently being advanced by a company called Allonnia. Their recently announced 1,4 D-Stroy system uses a specially identified bacteria that targets the forever chemical 1,4 Dioxane. Common to detergents and other consumer chemical products, been used since the 1950s, has been discovered in as much as 25% of drinking water, and causes serious health problems. To address the problem, Allonnia brings a tank of the specially cultivated bacteria to a target site, introducing them to the 1,4 D contaminated water, where the bacteria eagerly break the bonds of the forever chemical, leaving water and CO2. The company claims rates of as high as 98 percent removal of the contaminant.
This is an example of what is often called ‘bioremediation’, which essentially means using biology to clean up contamination and pollution. It’s a promising industry that has actually been around in a somewhat less sophisticated form for decades. What makes this moment different than before is the tools available to discover the useful abilities of microorganisms. This is made possible thanks to high resolution, high volume sequencing of DNA, and analytical tools that allow scientists to isolate a single microbe with a unique and super useful skill — like eating PFAs, for example. Companies and researchers are just beginning to explore the vast, untapped diversity of life already out there doing things that could help solve some of the biggest impacts of manufacturing and chemical industries.
Nature has already invented many of the solutions we are looking for. As our ability to scan swathes of DNA for specific traits and abilities becomes more refined, it will be like nature beginning to open all its patents for humanity to use.