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I found something interesting while doing a web search to help me in an online argument with a creationist (yeah, I know Confused ) which might be relevant to OA, perhaps.

Apparently, a common bacterium has evolved within historic time (less than a century - the 1930s at the earliest) to be able to use a completely novel chemical as an energy source, using a completely new enzyme. The enzyme is called nylonase, and that gives a clue to what it does. The substrate involved isn't actually nylon - it's a waste product of nylon manufacture - but I don't think that affects the argument.

So what I am wondering is: How likely is it that some essential component of future technology (maybe something like graphene, which is probably going to start being used in large amounts soon) is going to become the target of biological attack, either by natural means (random mutation) or deliberate geneering? And how much of a problem would it be?
It's pretty much assured. The bacteria are sort of nanomachines after all. Using them to weaken the enemy as sort of ad hoc disassemblers is reasonable strategy.
This was explored by Larry Niven, he proposed a bacteria capable of digesting superconductors (or something like that) and it caused the fall of a civilisation. As for the real life risk I'd place it at low. Bacteria are limited by the chemistry of what they could potentially break down, the chemical synthesis and degradation of carbon nanotubes is quit high energy so is unlikely to just evolve. But say something did evolve that started breaking down an aspect of our technology: we would just kill it, with ease. Bacterial infections are difficult to treat because you don't want to hurt the patient, hence why we use antibiotics which are getting less useful with time. But if push came to shove we could just dump all sorts of harmful chemicals on the afflicted tech.
Diesel engines suffer from bacterial infections, that sometimes cause severe degradation to performance. I wouldn't be surprised if microbes do evolve sufficiently to eat some oil-based plastics. Antibiotics are getting more and more difficult to develop at the current time, but there should be other forms of microbicides available at some point, hopefully in the relatively near future. The problem might be that artificial tech-eating microbes would be developed on purpose, or even by accident (genegeneers are already working on garbage eating microbes that eat plastics and extract metals).
Bacteria have been developed that can eat hydrocarbons IIRC. I believe the idea was that they could be sprayed on oil spills. To date, they are apparently too delicate to really work in a natural environment, I believe.

However, if such a thing was developed to the point of being able to readily survive and thrive in the wild it might, if it got out of control, pose a rather difficult challenge re just hitting it with chemicals to kill it. Because the chemicals used might also kill off lots of other, beneficial, life-forms in the process. We already see this to some extent with pesticides killing off beneficial insects as a side-effect. And if some of the genegineered bacteria happened to have a bit of an immunity, ala what happens with drug resistant diseases or pesticide resistant insects, we might end up with a rather more serious problem.

Actually, I believe Niven also postulated a bacterium that could eat plastic - In Ringworld Engineers (where the superconductor eating plague is discussed) I seem to remember this being mentioned and it being said that it apparently got into the wild and started eating plastic stuff off the shelves in stores. They had to switch to a different type of plastic or something.

(06-07-2015, 08:53 PM)Rynn Wrote: [ -> ]But if push came to shove we could just dump all sorts of harmful chemicals on the afflicted tech.

Doesn't plain old ethyl alcohol, in sufficiently high concentration, kill all known forms of bacteria? It dissolves their cell membranes like throwing acetone on polystyrene foam.
Todd - IIRC the oil-eating bacteria were found in the environment and merely cultured. It's somewhat logical that bacteria would naturally evolve to make use of this energy source, as natural oil seeps do exist - including ones on the ocean floor. If something wasn't eating the stuff, many of the world's beaches would be covered in tar.

I suppose that something like that must apply to the sort of hydrocarbons found in rubber, too. And it isn't all that unreasonable anyway, as some forms of fat bear a strong resemblance to oil in their structure. (Up to 24 carbons in a chain with an acid group on the end.)
You can't print new things cheaply without also having some way to break them down, otherwise your house fills up with things or the world fills up with garbage dumps. There's a monetary incentive to breed bacteria etc that can break down our products, whatever they are. It'll always happen, and we'll make it happen faster in the future.

Eventually everything that gets constructed will include an RFID tag or such, and an internet database will link that tag to how to deconstruct that product. Also how to construct a second copy. That solves the problem of accumulating broken junk that you don't know how to get rid of. The database could also include instructions for deconstructing wood and cloth and linoleum, even if they don't have RFID tags. Once you get wildlife that can read the internet, things could get interesting.
There's a lab at my university working on synthetic bacteria for the breakdown of waste products. Pretty much all of the work is focused on designs that can only exist inside a highly controlled environment. It's pretty difficult to see how such a thing could pose a wider threat to society, if the reactor breaks the cells all die. There's not a lot of chance of them evolving to survive either because there's no selective pressure and these cells would have minimal genomes (perhaps just 200 genes) making them very fragile.
(06-08-2015, 05:54 PM)iancampbell Wrote: [ -> ]Todd - IIRC the oil-eating bacteria were found in the environment and merely cultured.

Biofilms are an issue in jets' fuel tanks. Bacteria colonize the interface between water that gets into the tanks and the jet fuel and munches away on the hydrocarbons.
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