Plastic eating bacteria discovered by student could solve global pollution problem
New Delhi : When several cities globally have begun banning the use of plastic bags, a biology student at Reed College in Oregon have found a bacteria that can eat plastic and break it down into harmless by-products. This new discovery could possibly solve the global pollution crises.
The newly found bacteria can degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common plastic which is used in clothing, bottles and food packaging. PET take centuries to degrade and until then, it damages the environment.
Morgan Vague believed that she could speed up the process and help solve a big part of the plastic pollution on the Earth “When I started learning about the statistics about all the plastic waste we have, essentially that told me we have a really serious problem here and we need some way to address it,” she said.
She learned about bacterial metabolism and “all the crazy things bacteria can do,” so she started to see if microbes could degrade the plastic we get “straight-from-the-store.”
Her first step was to look for for microbes around refineries from her Houston. She was searching for microbes that can adapt to degrade plastic both in soil and in water. She took samples back to college in Portland, Oregon and started testing almost 300 strains of bacteria.
In her search, she was looking for an enzyme that could digest fat and break down plastic to transform it into food for the bacteria.
Vague found 20 bacteria that produced lipase (an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of fats), with three that had high levels of that enzyme. The student said that she used these three bacteria and started to feed them PET. “It looks like it breaks it down into harmless by-products that don’t do any environmental damage, so right now what it’s doing is breaking down the hydrocarbons within the plastic, and then the bacteria is able to use that as food and fuel. So essentially it’s using that to live. It’s essentially turning plastic into food,” said Morgan
Conversely, Vague believes that there is a long way to until we begin feeding the bacteria PET. Jay Mellies is a microbiologist and supervisor of Ms. Vague’s thesis, saying that the next step is to make the bacteria eat plastic faster, and get it to eat more different plastics, concluding that, “This is not going to be the total solution, but I think it’s going to be part of the solution.”