Science

Study finds microbes in the ocean are evolving to eat plastic

According to a new study, microbes in oceans and soils across the globe are developing the ability to divest plastic.

The research investigated more than 200m genes found in DNA samples taken from the environment, discovering 30,000 different enzymes that could potentially break down 10 different types of plastic.

Researchers found that the number and type of enzymes they identified matched the amount and type of plastic pollution in a variety of locations. The study is the first conducted as a large-scale global assessment of the potential that bacteria hold to degrade plastic.

They discovered that one in four of the organisms studied carried a suitable enzyme. Scientists said that the results “provide evidence of a measurable effect of plastic pollution on the global microbial ecology.” 

Every year, millions of tons of plastic are dumped into the environment, and pollution can be found across the globe from the top of Mount Everest down to the deepest oceans.

In order to protect the environment, scientists have said reducing the amount of plastic as well as proper collection and treatment of waste are vital measures. Still, many plastics are difficult to degrade and recycle.

Using enzymes from bacteria would help rapidly break down plastics into their building blocks to enable new products to be created from old items, eliminating the need for novel plastic production.

“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,” commented Professor Aleksej Zelezniak from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Another professor at Chalmers University, Jan Zrimec, noted: “We did not expect ot find such a large number of enzymes across so many different microbes and environmental habitats. This is a surprising discovery that really illustrates the scale of the issue.” 

ARTICLE: ELIZABETH HERTZBERG

MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE

PHOTO CREDITS: THE GUARDIAN

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