Polymers from Microorganisms

Plankton, eaten by baleen whales, the whale shark, and some crustaceans such as clams, is a very good example of tiny organisms which are beneficial. True, they are not technically polymers, but they have lots of polymers in their tiny bodies. Some of those polymers are crucial to how those tiny structures form and behave.

Foraminifera and radiolarians are very tiny organisms called microorganisms. They exist in huge numbers in the seas and when they die and sink to the bottom, they form deposits of chalk and limestone that we see in various places around the world. The reason these creatures do this is because of what they are made of.

White Cliffs of Dover Calcium carbonate is a common inorganic substance found in these organisms that does not decompose easily. Therefore when the organisms die they leave calcium carbonate behind, which in large numbers (millions of millions) can create deposits. A good example of chalk deposits would be the White Cliffs of Dover.

coffee mugs Deposits are then mined for the valuable materials they hold. Products made with calcium carbonate added include cement, plastics, and poly vinyl chloride. Plastic coffee cups like the one on the left are examples of polymers containing calcium carbonate.

Because of its low cost calcium carbonate is also used to improve paper, a product of cellulose from trees, and is used to control sheen or gloss in flat paints. It is also used as a base in cosmetics and toothpastes to neutralize acids in the mouth and on the face.

In case you were wondering, cellulose looks like this:


There are organisms that assist in cleaning up oil and other chemical spills. This process is called bioremediation. It has been a large help to both the ocean, its inhabitants, and humans who use the oceans resources in every day life.
There are some organisms that have been found in very extreme environments, such as heat as high as 350 degrees! Because of their tolerance for heat these organisms can be used in reactions which produce medicines. They can also be used in polymerase chain reaction, also known as chain growth polymerization which is used in DNA fingerprinting.

There are even tiny creatures airplanethat are so small and slow to work that it just looks like rust, but actually are organisms slowing eating away at the metal that have unfortunately found its way into their habitat. They have already gotten the name 'metal eating bacteria'. They have caused much damage, not only to this airplane that went down into the ocean, but also to industrial sites. Many companies are trying to engineer building structures that are made from polymer materials which can resist this metal eating bacteria.

What about other metal things like fishing hooks?

Good question! Let's stray from the organism point of view and comment on it. What polymer scientists are trying to do is solve problems like these by finding new polymers to coat metals to stop rust and corrosion. They're also looking for other polymeric materials that will dissolve even faster than metals rusting so that, if they are lost, such as when a fishing hook and fishing line get carried away by a too-big fish, they will quickly be absorbed into the environment without harm. Now THAT'S a good use of science, no?

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