Environmental Clean-Up Crew

How bacteria and fungi have been shown to help break down plastics and clean up oil spills, demonstrating the foresight of a creator

by Tom Hennigan on April 1, 2013; last featured April 22, 2021
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Scientists are discovering bacteria and fungi that can break down modern compounds, such as polyurethane plastics. Did the Creator foresee the biological resources we would need to help correct our mistakes, as we fulfill His command to “subdue the earth”?

Are we in danger of destroying life on the planet by continually dumping millions of tons of polyurethane plastics into our waterways and landscapes and by enormous oil spills in the oceans? In both cases, the problems may sound insurmountable until we remember that our God is both the Creator and Sustainer of life and planet earth.

Yale University students isolated a fungus in the Amazon rainforest capable of breaking down manmade polyurethane plastics. This was the first time an organism had been discovered that can do this. So there’s hope.

Help came from another unexpected source after two major oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. In June 1979 Mexico’s Ixtoc oil well exploded and spewed 30,000 barrels of oil per day for ten months. It wreaked havoc first in Mexico and then Texas. Marine life was reduced 80% in some areas. At least one endangered species of fish was brought to the brink of extinction. The BP oil rig that exploded in 2010 spewed 53,000 barrels per day into the ocean, easily the worst accidental oil spill of all time.

Though many questions about long-term effects still need answers, the doomsaying seems highly exaggerated. Two years after the Ixtoc spill, many were surprised at how quickly those environments returned to health. Just three decades later, people are hard-pressed to find any evidence of the spill, and the same thing is happening with the BP spill. It turns out that the lion’s share of the clean-up is done by oil-eating bacteria.

God has designed bacteria with the ability to break down certain chemicals in oil and natural gas.

Interestingly, God has designed bacteria with the ability to break down certain chemicals in oil and natural gas that they can use for growth and reproduction. He may have designed them directly or they may have developed an adaptation (through mutation) that allows them to digest oil.

It seems that God already made provisions to limit the harmful impact of our sinful and imperfect ways upon His creation.

What wonderful illustrations of the resilience of God’s creation, as well as mankind’s opportunities to enhance it! God made bacteria that eat oil, and He made a fungus that can digest a manmade substance, not necessarily because He directly designed that function but because the fungus digests a natural product that is very similar to plastic so that it can digest both products. On the other hand, it appears that God intended for people to discover these fungal and bacterial abilities and then cultivate them for good.

Evolutionary environmentalists bristle at these ideas because they envision nature as extremely fragile and they caricature human dominion over nature as wanton destruction.

The untapped potential of fungi and bacteria are just examples of how resilient and self-correcting the Creator designed the earth’s ecosystems to be. Yet we must interpret Genesis 1:28God’s command for us to have dominion and subdue creation—in light of the Creator’s heart.

Taking them in isolation, subdue and have dominion could seem to justify abuse of the earth, but the wider context of Scripture makes that interpretation impossible. Rather, our subduing and ruling the earth should mirror God’s own method of bringing increasing order, vitality, fruitfulness, and diversity to the earth.

That is, as special beings made in God’s image, we are to rule as God rules, not abusively and destructively but lovingly and creatively. We must balance short-term and long-term needs, like a forester who balances today’s needs for timber with his duty to maintain a healthy forest environment for generations to come. Effective stewardship of creation requires understanding the individual creatures and their relationships in these ecosystems.

Romans 1:20 explains that the invisible God has illustrated His invisible qualities in the visible creation. One of those attributes is the triune relational nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Vital, healthy relationships in creation reflect this aspect of God. God created a complex network of organisms to make life possible on this planet, and it is humanity’s privilege as God’s appointed rulers to understand and maximize these relationships for good.

Bacteria and fungi have a place in this scheme, too. They bridge the gap between the nonliving and the living parts of the environment, as the fungi assist the plants of the rainforest and the oil-eating bacteria clean the oceans.

If only we would take the Creator’s dominion mandate seriously, as He intended. We would then focus on discovering the hidden potential that God has built into nature, and finding how new relationships among His creatures can help us to better care for creation and use it wisely—to His glory.

Tom Hennigan, M.S., M.P.S. is Associate Professor of Biology at Truett-McConnell College, where he teaches organism biology and ecology, and is a contributing writer for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

Answers Magazine

April – June 2013

What unique conditions were required to start the Ice Age, and where does it fit in Bible times? Why did Ice Age animals grow so big, and what happened to them? Also, can you explain why God made more species of beetles than any other animal? Can you prove that Genesis 1–3 is not a Near Eastern myth? Read the answers to these questions and many, many more in this issue!

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