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Bacteria eat and digest plastic

Sustainability

Though the experiments are illuminating, the researchers still stress that their findings don’t offer silver-bullet solutions for the world’s plastic pollution

Spotted: Hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic are produced every year, and a significant proportion ends up in the ocean, where it injures and kills marine life. Now, scientists have discovered a bacterium that eats and digests some of this plastic – shedding light on where some of the ocean’s ‘missing’ plastic might have disappeared to.  

Lead researcher Maaike Goudriaan, from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, fed Rhodococcus ruber a plastic that had been manufactured especially for the experiment, with a particular form of carbon in it. She then found this type of carbon appear as CO2 above the water, meaning the bacteria had broken the plastic down. 

Goudriaan calculated that these bacteria can break down at least one per cent of the available plastic every year. But she stressed that this discovery isn’t the answer to our plastic problem. She says: “These experiments are mainly a proof of principle. I see it as one piece of the jigsaw in the issue of where all the plastic that disappears into the oceans stays. If you try to trace all our waste, a lot of plastic is lost. Digestion by bacteria could possibly provide part of the explanation.” 

Goudriaan has already done some pilot experiments with real sea water and sediment and come out with similar findings. She hopes another researcher can now look more deeply at to what extent bacteria also behave this way in the real world, not just in the lab. 

Springwise has spotted other ways scientists are investigating the removal of microplastics from water supplies, including by using okra and a plastic-identifying fluorescent dye.

Written By: Jessica Bradley

Email: maaike.goudriaan@nioz.nl

Website: nioz.nl

Contact: nioz.nl/contact

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