Bugs across globe are evolving to eat plastic, study finds
Surprising discovery shows scale of plastic pollution and reveals enzymes that could boost recycling
Microbes in oceans and soils across the globe are evolving to eat plastic, according to a study.
The research scanned more than 200m genes found in DNA samples taken from the environment and found 30,000 different enzymes that could degrade 10 different types of plastic.
The study is the first large-scale global assessment of the plastic-degrading potential of bacteria and found that one in four of the organisms analysed carried a suitable enzyme. The researchers found that the number and type of enzymes they discovered matched the amount and type of plastic pollution in different locations.
The results “provide evidence of a measurable effect of plastic pollution on the global microbial ecology”, the scientists said.
Millions of tonnes of plastic are dumped in the environment every year, and the pollution now pervades the planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. Reducing the amount of plastic used is vital, as is the proper collection and treatment of waste.
But many plastics are currently hard to degrade and recycle. Using enzymes to rapidly break down plastics into their building blocks would enable new products to be made from old ones, cutting the need for virgin plastic production. The new research provides many new enzymes to be investigated and adapted for industrial use.
“We found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution – a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” said Prof Aleksej Zelezniak, at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
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