Newly discovered bacteria feeds on toxic plastic

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Human activity has produced over eight billion tons of plastic since the material entered mass production in the 1950s — most of which have been discarded in huge landfills and the world’s oceans after products made from it fell out of use.

Plastic is extremely cheap and durable, which explains its popularity. These characteristics also make plastic a bane for the environment.  Not only do plastic fragments threaten wildlife when they ingest them, they also release toxic and carcinogenic chemicals when they break down.  

But we know that life finds a way to thrive even in the most unexpected and inhospitable places.

Newly discovered bacteria not only survive in landfills, they also seem to feed solely on the toxic chemicals formed by the breakdown of plastics. Specifically, the bacteria munch on polyurethane (PET), the authors wrote in their new study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

About 50 million tons of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are made each year to satisfy our growing needs for fabrics, electrics and beverage containers. Alas, half of all PETs end up either in landfills or the ocean.

According to researchers at theHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Leipzig, Germany, the new strain of Pseudomonas bacteria can use the components of polyurethane as their sole source of carbon, nitrogen, and energy.

Previously, scientists had discovered fungi that could break down polyurethane and even accidentally created a mutant enzyme in the lab that could break down plastic bottles. This month, biologists at Brandon University in the US described a plastic-munching wax moth caterpillar. However, bacteria are much more reliable to use at an industrial scale.

There is still much work to be done before enzymes extracted from the bacteria can be sprayed on landfills to almost magically make plastic disappear. It’s much more complicated than meets the eye and it might take ten years before we see wide-scale use of biotech to tackle plastic pollution.

Nevertheless, this is very good news within a backdrop of doom and gloom, dominated by news of increasing pollution, global warming, and now a life-threatening pandemic.

Many existential threats to mankind are of our own doing. It is thus our responsibility to make amends by recycling more and using plastic-free products, besides radical solutions such as biotech. We made plastic; now it’s up to us to clean it up.

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