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Innovation of the Week: ‘The mucus house’

A giant larvacean (the blue, tadpole-like animal) beats its tail, pumping water and microplastic beads (red dots) through its inner filter. MBARI

What is it? A floating “mucus house”

Innovators: Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

What were they thinking? Every year, the world dumps 8 billion metric tons of plastic into the ocean and much of it breaks up into microscopic particles that can wreak havoc with marine life. Tweezers won’t remove the troublesome debris. But a team of California researchers, Wired magazine reports, may have found a clever way to deal with them — employing a jellyfish-like creature called a larvacean that makes a three-foot long “mucus house” to catch wee bits of food.

Did it work? Using a small submarine, the researchers dropped some flourescent plastic microbeads into the water and were astonished to see a larvacean catch and eat the stuff. They snatched the animal, put it into a holding tank, and watched to see what became of the plastic beads. What happened next was, perhaps, predictable. “They pooped them out,” said bioengineer Kakani Katija. Larvaceans won’t eliminate the plastic altogether, then, but they could move it to the ocean floor by way of their droppings. That’d be progress. And it could, in time, yield the world’s greatest Slip ‘N Slide.