My last post was pretty depressing, I know. The issue of plastic overtaking our environment, killing off wildlife, and affecting our health IS depressing. This post comes to you with hope for the future. As an ex-partner of mine would say, “Science created it and science can un-create it.” I’m counting on that.
Well, now, there is a lot out there about a “natural” remedy for the problem. Is it really possible that nature has provided “plastic-eating bacteria?”
“Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles,” a headline from The Guardian touts:
Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.
The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.
The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”
The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.
From another The Guardian post:
Nature has begun to fight back against the vast piles of filth dumped into its soils, rivers and oceans by evolving a plastic-eating bacteria – the first known to science.
In a report published in the journal Science, a team of Japanese researchers described a species of bacteria that can break the molecular bonds of one of the world’s most-used plastics – polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or polyester.
The Japanese research team sifted through hundreds of samples of PET pollution before finding a colony of organisms using the plastic as a food source. Further tests found the bacteria almost completely degraded low-quality plastic within six weeks. This was voracious when compared to other biological agents; including a related bacteria, leaf compost and a fungus enzyme recently found to have an appetite for PET.
Here in the U.S., Morgan Vague, Clinical Research Coordinator at Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine in Portland, Oregon, presents a TED Talk about her research. She talks realistically about the problem we face and how “my bacteria” can help.
How about the solution presented here in an article from Fast Company discussing the enzyme used by bacteria to digest plastic and how it can be developed?
Around the world, several research projects are exploring the potential of enzymes, the part of the microorganisms responsible for digesting the plastic, to help. In the U.K., scientists studying the Japanese bacteria accidentally created a version of the bacteria’s enzyme that worked even better, breaking down plastic bottles in days rather than weeks. At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S., scientists are also working on the enzyme—called PETase, because it can eat PET plastic—to make it work faster. Researchers in Germany studied the structure of PETase to optimize it. And in France, a startup called Carbios has developed its own enzyme, which can fully break down PET plastic so it can be recycled into new, consumer-grade plastic of the same quality as virgin PET. Major corporations including PepsiCo and Nestlé are now partnering with the company, which plans to begin building its first demonstration plant this fall.
Like some other new recycling technology, using enzymes has advantages over traditional methods of shredding up old products. The plastic doesn’t have to be clean, and can be broken down completely. “We take these plastics back down to some of their precursor components, and then they are maybe in a better position then to be reused and reincorporated into new materials,” Hallinan says. Creating precursors for making plastic, rather than recycling whole plastic into a lower-grade material, might incentivize more recycling because there’s a better market for the final product. “There might be more economic appetite, more industrial appetite, for those types of materials.”
Then, there are the two students, Jeanny Yao and Miranda Wang, who have been studying and have invented bacteria that “eat plastic from the ocean and turn it into water.” Seeing a headline with their work is what got me looking deeper in this possible “miracle” cure.
I’m certainly not convinced these bacteria are the silver bullet we need, but, combined with limiting plastic production, returning to the days of re-usable materials like glass, and the biodegradable, sustainable materials paper and cardboard, even recyclable aluminum, we may be able to get some control of the situation. At least, we can hope.
Jan is a singer, a songwriter, a licensed body worker specializing in CranioSacral Therapy, and a teacher. She is an advocate for the ethical treatment of ALL animals and a volunteer with several animal advocacy organizations. She is also a staunch believer in the need to promote environmental responsibility.
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