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Scientists discover unusual method to help in the fight against plastic: 'Our data contribute to a better understanding'

Recent research shows the potential for a new way to break down a notoriously prolific type of plastic.

Recent research shows the potential for a new way to break down a notoriously prolific type of plastic.

Photo Credit: iStock

As plastic waste accumulates in our oceans and waterways, scientists continue the search for ways to clean up the mess. From a plastic-eating robo-fish to an innovative plastic magnet, researchers and inventors have devised some creative solutions to address the growing problem using the latest technology and even drawing from the ocean itself. 

Recent research shows the potential for a new way to break down a notoriously prolific type of plastic using enzymes made by microorganisms from the deep sea.

The results of a recent study explore the potential for enzymes that degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and are natural substances that cause a specific biological reaction. They are created by microorganisms called archaea that can break down certain types of plastic, including those that make up plastic bottles and other commonly discarded items.

Phys.org explains that there are about 80 previously known PET-degrading enzymes, mostly bacteria or fungi. However, a new enzyme, PET46, is the first archaeal enzyme and has unusual properties such as the ability to continuously break down materials. 

Archaea are microbes distinct from bacteria often found in extreme environments such as the deep sea. Scientists are seeking to better understand these unique enzymes and the potential of harnessing this biological process to break down the mass of plastic waste polluting our oceans.

"Our data contribute to a better understanding of the ecological role of deep-sea archaea and the possible degradation of PET waste in the sea," said professor Ruth Schmitz-Streit, head of the Molecular Biology of Microorganisms working group at the Institute of General Microbiology.

Tons of plastic have been dumped in the ocean for decades, even creating a floating island of trash dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Plastic litter kills sealife, threatens food chains, and negatively impacts human health and coastal economies. 

Sea creatures that normally live along the coast have even been found hitching a ride on floating plastic, carrying them into deeper waters where their populations can't survive or spreading potentially invasive species to new environments.  

The new research is part of the PLASTISEA project, which seeks to harness the power of PET-degrading enzymes to help tackle the plastic problem. PLASTISEA focuses on expanding research into microorganisms to create a "biotechnology toolbox" that could someday be used to remove particles from marine habitats, including the microplastics that have made their way into every biome.

Although still in its early stages, this research pushes closer to a proof of concept for scientists hoping to utilize biotechnology as a viable resource for managing plastic pollution. In the meantime, the best ways to keep plastic waste under control are to avoid single-use items whenever possible and advocate for policies and funding that support the research that could rid our oceans of harmful plastic.

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