According to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, scientists have discovered a bacterium that can feed on toxic plastic. Not only does it breakdown the plastic, but it also uses it as fuel to provide power to the process. The bacterium was discovered at a waste site where plastic is discarded. The bacterium, as per reports, is the first one that can attack polyurethane. Every year, a million tonnes of plastic is produced in the factories to manufacture goods such as sports shoes, nappies, kitchen sponges and as foam insulation. However, this plastic has to be sent to the landfill as its recycling is extremely complicated or difficult, as per reports. The plastic can release lethal and carcinogenic chemicals when broken down. These secreted chemicals can kill most bacteria, however, the newly identified strain is able to live longer.
Hermann Heipieper, a member of the research team at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Leipzig, Germany reportedly said that these findings represent an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle polyurethane products. He added that it is important to reduce the use of plastic which is extremely difficult to recycle and along with that what is crucial is to cut the amount of plastic in the atmosphere. It might be 10 years before the bacterium could be used on a large scale, as per reports.
The journal Frontiers in Microbiology in which the research was published, has discovered a new strain of Pseudomonas bacteria, which is a family known for its capacity to resist harsh conditions, like that of high temperatures and acidic environments. The researchers revealed that more than 8 billion tonnes of plastic are being produced, most of which have polluted the world’s land and oceans, or in landfill dumps, since the 1950s. The researchers have also found that the bacteria could use these compounds as an exclusive source of carbon, nitrogen and energy.
Heipieper added that the next step would be to discover the genes that code for the enzymes produced by the bug that can break down the polyurethane. He also added that bacteria can be harnessed easily for industrial use, while fungi have also been used before in order to break down polyurethane. In 2018 Scientists revealed, that a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles, which are made of PET, was accidentally created by them, which can potentially enable the complete recycling of bottles for the first time.
Prof John McGeehan, the director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, England, has praised this work. Prof John McGeehan reportedly said that the breakdown of certain polyurethanes can release toxic additives, which need to be handled carefully. He added that understanding and harnessing such natural processes will open the door for innovative recycling solutions.
Heipieper reportedly said that when there are huge amounts of plastic in the environment, that means there is a lot of carbon and there will be an evolution to use this as food. Bacteria are there in huge numbers and their evolution is very fast. The past research has revealed that several fungi can break down PET plastic, while larvae of wax moth which is typically bred as fish bait, can consume polythene bags, as per reports. However, the main directive is to reduce the amount of plastic being released into the environment.
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