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Plastic is a huge problem in our lives. One of the ideas is to engineer plastic eating bacteria or fungi. Experiments already begun, and accidents already happen:

a team of international scientists illustrate how they created—by accident—a new enzyme capable of breaking down plastic bottles.

So let's assume microbe like that was engineered to just eat plastic like it eats sugars and other stuff. Then, containment broke in processing plants next to ten rivers that contribute the most to plastic problems:

  1. Yangtze
  2. Indus
  3. Yellow
  4. Hai
  5. Nile
  6. Ganges
  7. Pearl
  8. Amur
  9. Niger
  10. Mekong

How fast can we get this microbes all around the oceans, especially plastic deposits? They will be almost unchallenged on food, because hardly anything else in nature eats plastic, so all real life models look irrelevant to me. On the other hand, I'm not sure if I can just use speed of ocean currents - and if I can, simulating it is above my knowledge at the moment.

You can give this microbe any advantage needed, I want it everywhere as fast as possible to make my apocalypse sudden, and to make world unable to stop it.


Note: This question does not touch things that are not relevant to rapidity of spreading. It avoids them on purpose, they will be worked upon in parts 2, 3 and possibly more. Now, if there is something missing about how fast could it spread in oceans, I'll be glad to work on this question. If it belongs to follow ups, please wait.

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    $\begingroup$ I would just keep in mind that being unchallenged for food doesn't mean being invincible, bacteriophages, other micro-organisms, even plants and fungi all have ways to kill microbes in their environment (for example all the natural antiobitics we've discovered) $\endgroup$ – Thymine Dec 10 '18 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Thymine good point, and one more reason for me to not know how fast it could happen. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 10 '18 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ Here are some plastic quantity estimates, from ES.SE. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 10 '18 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ Why is this an apocalypse? It will eat plastic, then when the plastic runs out, it will die. Assuming the bacterial colonies are biodegradeable, they'll become a source of nutrients for algae and decomposers. Where is the problem? $\endgroup$ – nzaman Dec 10 '18 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ It doesn't have to travel in ocean currents, it just needs to hitch a ride on freighters. That's a real-world problem right now - see things like ocean.si.edu/conservation/invasive-species/… $\endgroup$ – James Moore Dec 10 '18 at 18:20
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The debris generated by the tsunami hitting Japan in 2011 reached US West coast, thus crossed the Pacific Ocean, after few months.

This is your upper limit for the needed time. Add to this that, as opposed to solid debris, bacterial spores can be transported by wind or animals, and your diffusion time significantly shortens.

I.e. take an albatross resting in an infected plastic patch in the middle of the ocean, it will carry the spores hundreds of kilometers away in a matter of few days. And the more they are spread, the further they can spread.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh. Birds. Good point! $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 10 '18 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ Ever see the The Satan Bug as the plot is based on a deadly plague stolen from a secret lab. Once quote is "Perhaps the Great Albatross swinging its way around the bottom of the world. Perhaps an Eskimo deep in the Arctic. But the seas travel the world over, and so do the winds. One day, one day soon, they too would die." $\endgroup$ – StephenG Dec 10 '18 at 11:18
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The inventors of penicillin carried the mold out of Nazi territory by smearing it on their clothes.

If you want a quick dispersal, then consider human air travelers as your medium.

The initial release was tiny. It might not have spread at all beyond this city of bricks and concrete except for John Smith, in town for the day on business. A few tiny spores landed on his down jacket as he walked past the bland building housing the lab. They blossomed inconspicuously on the inside of the jacket's bottom hem and released more spores among the feathers.

When John stuffed his coat into the overhead bin before takeoff from Beijing, an almost invisible puff of spores wafted down the aisle and into an intake that would spread slow destruction throughout the plane. That plane eventually fell out of the sky, oil gummed and worthless, plastic components rotted out. But not before it delivered John to Amsterdam, where he was deplaned onto the apron. The day was cold, so he fluffed the jacket out, spreading spores on several nearby airport workers, before putting it on and boarding the shuttle to the terminal. It was several minutes before the shuttle was fully loaded. In the process, John was jostled several times as the other passengers crammed onto the bus, to the effect that no human left that shuttle without being thoroughly infected. They would fly on to Paris, Frankfurt, Jakarta, Sao Paulo... And John continued his journey too, heading first to Washington D.C.'s Dulles International, and then on to Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world.

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These days any microbe can travel around the world in two days thanks to humans. It only take one human with plastic lunchbox, umbrella, wallet, anything really, to hop on a plane and be in another continent the same day. Once the microbes reach all major population centers in two, maybe three days, they will spread somewhat more slowly into the countryside on busses, telephone line insulation, newspaper wraps, but in couple of weeks at most, they are everywhere.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is really nice answer, but would benefit from some sources :) $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 11 '18 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ sorry, but which parts need sourcing? :) long haul flights and ubiquity of plastics are common knowledge. How easy it is for the microbe to infect the plastic bottle in your bag is up to you in your story, but once they get out of the lab they will spread as i describe. your bottle doesn't need to touch the cable going out of your house, the same way your sandwich doesn't need to touch anything moldy to catch mold. all microbes are airborne, it's up to you how long they can survive in the air, but anything longer than couple of seconds is enough. $\endgroup$ – Milo Bem Dec 11 '18 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ Now it is identical to this one: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/132553/809 I assumed it is meant to be different and you have some source for two days claim, like L.Dutch had for his few months with oceanic currents answer. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 11 '18 at 14:36

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