Microbes Are Learning to “Eat” Plastic Around the World

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Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans, contributing to a growing pollution problem.

However, there’s an intriguing development: scientists have discovered that microbes around the world are evolving to break down plastic.

Researchers from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden found that the number of microbes capable of degrading plastic is increasing.

Their study, published in the journal Microbial Ecology, reveals a direct correlation between higher levels of plastic pollution and an increase in plastic-degrading microbes in the environment.

Surprising Findings

Jan Zrimec, the study’s lead author, expressed surprise at the discovery.

The researchers found a significant number of plastic-degrading enzymes across various types of microbes and habitats, illustrating the scale of plastic pollution.

To uncover these findings, scientists analyzed DNA from microbes in 236 locations worldwide.

They specifically looked for genes that produce plastic-degrading enzymes.

They identified 30,000 such enzymes—12,000 in the ocean microbiome and 18,000 in soil—that have the potential to degrade 10 different types of plastic.

Detailed Analysis

The study showed that areas with higher levels of plastic pollution had more plastic-degrading enzymes.

This suggests that microbial life is adapting to cope with the increasing presence of plastic.

Aleksej Zelezniak, another study author and Associate Professor in Systems Biology at Chalmers, explained that their models provided multiple lines of evidence supporting the correlation between the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential and environmental plastic pollution.

The Growing Problem of Plastic

Plastic production has surged since the mid-20th century.

This durable material is now pervasive, found everywhere from the icy expanses of Antarctica to the deepest parts of the Mariana Trench.

Unfortunately, plastic’s resilience means it takes a very long time to break down.

For instance, a plastic straw can take up to 200 years to decompose.

This widespread presence of plastic has resulted in various environmental issues.

Plastic debris harms marine life, pollutes natural habitats, and contributes to the broader problem of environmental contamination.

As plastic persists in the environment, it breaks down into microplastics, which can enter the food chain and impact human health.

A Potential Solution

Despite the enormous challenge, the researchers believe their work could lead to new recycling methods.

The next step is to test the most promising enzymes in the lab to understand their properties and determine the rate at which they can degrade plastic.

Successful testing could pave the way for engineering microbial communities with targeted degrading functions for specific types of plastic.

Zelezniak elaborated that by understanding these enzymes better, it might be possible to develop microbial solutions that can be deployed in polluted environments to accelerate the breakdown of plastic waste.

Conclusion

This research highlights that while plastic pollution is a significant global issue, nature is beginning to adapt.

The evolution of microbes capable of “eating” plastic may become a crucial part of managing and reducing plastic waste in the future.

By harnessing these natural processes, scientists hope to develop innovative solutions to address the growing plastic pollution problem, ultimately leading to a cleaner and more sustainable environment.


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