More than 380 million tons of plastic are produced every year, nearly half of which is single-use. And while recycling efforts are widespread, less than 5% of all plastic is recycled, with the rest of it often winding up in landfills.
That could soon change thanks to a discovery by Northwestern University researchers, which was published in Nature Chemical Biology.
The researchers discovered that a common bacterium called Comamonas testosteroni, found in soil and sewage sludge, has the potential to consume plastic. The researchers observed the bacterium’s ability to break down laundry detergent as well as compounds in plastic and plants — basically, it’s hungry for the carbon that these materials turn into as they break down.
“Soil bacteria provide an untapped, underexplored, naturally occurring resource of biochemical reactions that could be exploited to help us deal with the accumulating waste on our planet,” Northwestern environmental engineering professor Ludmilla Aristilde said in a statement.
“We found that the metabolism of C. testosteroni is regulated on different levels,” Aristile continued, “and those levels are integrated. The power of microbiology is amazing and could play an important role in establishing a circular economy.”
Because this bacterium naturally has the ability to break down plastic, the research team says it could make it an ideal candidate for use in municipal and other large-scale recycling operations.
For a variety of reasons, not all plastics can be recycled — especially at home. That’s due to everything from limitations at recycling facilities and plastics being combined with other materials to food waste left in plastic containers.
Aristilde said that the benefit of the C. testosteroni is that it’s pre-disposed to a plastic diet and doesn’t require any modification.
“Engineering bacteria for different purposes is a laborious process,” Aristilde said. “It is important to note that C. testosteroni cannot use sugars, period. It has natural genetic limitations that prevent competition with sugars, making this bacterium an attractive platform.”
The researchers also discovered that bacteria could help to recycle plastic into different byproducts. According to Aristilde, the digested plastic could be turned into different polymers by the bacteria.
“These Comamonas species have the potential to make several polymers relevant to biotechnology,” Aristilde said. “This could lead to new platforms that generate plastic, decreasing our dependence on petroleum chemicals.
“One of my lab’s major goals is to use renewable resources,” Aristilde continued, “such as converting waste into plastic and recycling nutrients from wastes. Then, we won’t have to keep extracting petroleum chemicals to make plastics, for instance.”
While the bacteria isn’t yet in use at recycling facilities, it could be soon enough.
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