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Bacteria May Become Plastic Pathfinders

Bacteria on empty plastic bottle

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Millions of tons of plastic are dumped in the environment annually, and reducing that amount is critical. A study by the Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, published in the journal Microbial Ecology, discovered that microbes in oceans and soils worldwide are evolving to eat plastic. The research scanned more than 200 million genes found in DNA samples taken from the environment and found 30,000 different enzymes that could degrade 10 different types of plastic. This is the first, large-scale, global evaluation of the plastic-degrading potential of bacteria, which found that one in four of the organisms analyzed carried a suitable enzyme. The researchers observed that the number and type of enzymes matched those of plastic pollution in various locations.

Many plastics are hard to degrade and recycle. The explosion of plastic production in the past 70 years, from 2 million metric tons to 380 million metric tons a year, has given microbes time to evolve to deal with plastic. Using enzymes to rapidly break down plastics into their respective building blocks will allow new products to be made from the old, decreasing the need for new production. This research highlights new enzymes that could be adapted for industrial use.