One of the world’s environmental crises could be solved with a bacteria that can eat plastic and break it down into harmless by-products. The bacteria was found by a biology student at Reed College in Oregon, Morgan Vague.
This bacteria can degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – a common plastic which is used in clothing, bottles and food packaging. PET can degrade in centuries, 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 our planet:
“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.”
Then, 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.”
Testing 300 Strains of Bacteria – 3 of Them ‘Ate’ PET
The first step was to hunt for microbes around refineries from her Houston. She was searching for microbes that adapted 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, 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 can use that as food and fuel. So essentially it’s using that to live. It’s essentially turning plastic into food.”
However, there is a long journey 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.”
Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere