PLASTIC-EATING BACTERIA: SOLUTION FOR PLASTIC POLLUTION?

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As we all know, plastic pollution has proven to be a vast problem all around the world. Regardless of the various awareness programmes, plastic pollution continues to this day. Thrown out the car window, disposed of plastic waste at beaches and the countryside, not to mention the large collection of plastics in the ocean that are threatening its innocent inhabitants. Unfortunately, the majority of the plastics disposed of are synthetic plastics that are non-biodegradable. They are polymeric materials which means that it consists of molecules linked together in an endless series of interconnected links. Simply put, breaking down and decomposing synthetic plastics are very difficult and can take many years.

Another major problem is the occurrence of microplastics. Resulting from the development of commercial products as well as the breakdown of larger plastics, microplastics tend to be very harmful to oceanic life. According to the IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature), microplastics are being ingested by many marine species that could leach toxic contaminants into the body of the organism.

The discovery

In the year 2016, Japanese scientists made an outstanding discovery which they thought could be the solution to plastic pollution all around the world. After collecting plastic bottles from outside a recycling facility, the scientists came upon a species of bacteria that were apparently “eating” away at the plastics. Generally, bacteria would focus on absorbing dead, organic matter, however, according to the journal Science, published in 2016, the Ideonellasakaiensis bacteria was observed, feasting on a certain type of plastic called the PolyEthylene Terephthalate (PET).

Research on the bacteria

After intense analysis, scientists found that this bacterium produces digestive enzymes (proteins that can break down larger, complex substances into smaller substances). These enzymes interact with the PET and break it down into simpler substances which are further broken down to produce energy for the usage of the bacteria.

This discovery has opened doors to many more research opportunities. Genetic scientists are trying to find ways of genetically engineering bacteria such as E.coli (harmless bacteria which could be found in our intestines) into PET digesting factories by observing the DNA composition of the Ideonellasakaiensis bacteria.

According to the University of Portsmouth, researchers have re-engineered the PET digesting enzyme into a ‘cocktail’ with the incredible ability to digest plastics up to six times faster than the original enzyme. In the opinion of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the US, scientists have created a ‘super enzyme’ by combining the PET digesting enzyme with another plastic digesting enzyme known as MHETase.

Plastics into vanillin?

Vanillin is the main component of vanilla bean extract. As you may have guessed, vanillin can be used for food flavourings, perfumes, pharmaceuticals, etc. Surprisingly, as claimed by the University of Edinburgh, researchers have found a way to use E.coli bacteria to convert digested plastics into vanillin. This could truly be a wonderful discovery since it would not only reduce plastic pollution but could potentially meet the global demands of vanillin all around the world. As stated by Live Science, 85 per cent of vanillin is synthetically produced from chemicals taken from fossil fuels to meet the global demand hence, using plastics could result in an environment-friendly, alternative solution.

So how is this vanillin produced? After breaking down the PET plastic into simpler substances, scientists from the University of Edinburgh took this process one step further by converting the simple substances into vanillin through a string of chemical reactions. The produced vanillin was found to be fit for our consumption though it is stated that further investigations are required.

Complications

Although this is an exceptional discovery, it is still a work in progress. PET is not the only plastic found in the world which draws a line on the amount of plastic the PET digesting enzyme could break down. Along with this drawback, scientists still have to come up with a practical solution for introducing the bacteria into the environment. If succeeded, we can imagine its potential of one day tackling the millions of tons of plastic waste unloaded into our seas, oceans and lands every year. 

By Kawmudi Debnath