Living Organisms Could Combat Plastic Pollution

Let’s face it. Plastic has become a world-wide problem. More and more plastic escapes from over-filled landfills into the water ways and ends up creating enormous sized plastic patches in the Oceans. Could living organisms combat plastic pollution? Scientists say yes, because they already discovered two species that love to eat plastic.

It is truly mind-boggling, that with all technological inventions the human mind has shown to be capable off, it is nature coming to the rescue to solve a human-made problem that is one of the greatest threats to nature.

The danger of plastic pollution

We use the term plastic pollution to describe the accumulation of plastic products in the environment. Which, in turn, has a disastrous effect on wildlife, their habitats, and also on humans.

Banning plastic straws is not going to solve the issue when the danger comes from all things plastic. Plastic is being produced on a large scale, mainly because plastic is cheap and lasts for a long time.

After more and more discoveries of turtles with plastic straws stuck in their nostrils, dead whales washing up on beaches with their stomachs full of plastic debris, and animals caught in the plastic rings from six-packs, consumers are becoming more aware that there is just too much plastic going into the landfills. While they do their best to cut down on plastics, it is just not enough.

Organisms combat plastic pollution
Photographer Ganesh Vanare took this image on the beach of Mumbai to show how bad plastic pollution has become in the oceans. Image credit: haram_khor_ on Instagram

The break-down of plastics

Plastic debris is persistent and the decomposition rate can be anywhere from 50 to 600 years to decompose in the environment. This time frame depends on the makeup of the plastic and only if it ends up in the ocean. Plastic in the oceans tend to decompose faster than on land due to the high concentration of saline, mixed with the exposure to the sun. But even this doesn’t matter anymore since the accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans has slowed the process down.

Plastic waste does not only pose a threat in its larger forms, with the smallest one maybe the endless fishing lines getting lost in the waters. A major problem are also micro particles. These can result from the breakdown of larger plastics, but they are also in abundance found in cleaning and cosmetic products such as facial soaps.

Since these micro particles are so small, they can easily be consumed by filter-feeding organisms like clams and many fish. But even more of it ends up in our tab water.

A study found that 83% of tap water around the world is contaminated with plastic particles. Of which the United States rank the highest with a contamination rate of 94% of its tab water. European countries were found to have the lowest rates of plastic particles in their tab water.

Can living organism combat plastic pollution?

Scientists discovered two organisms that could combat plastic pollution. The first one in Ecuador during a research trip, and the second one by pure accident in the lab.

The plastic-eating mushroom

In 2011, a research team of Yale undergraduates and professors came across a mushroom that not only can sustain itself on polyurethane, the key ingredient in plastic products, but also do so without the need of oxygen.

Pestalotiopsis microspora, the first discovery of living organisms that could combat plastic pollution, would be functionally devour plastic if planted at the bottom of landfills. Which would be of great help to reduce the amount of plastic in landfills. But would it be enough, considering the large amounts of plastic trash produced each year?

Scientists think that there is possibly a market for a production of recycle kits which contain the fungi, that could be utilized at home and in community recycle centers.

Mushrooms, in general, are great for the environment with their ability to remove pollutants from soil and conversion of waste into bio fuels. And as it turns out, there are more species of fungi capable of breaking down plastics.

In 2018, during the the first State of the World’s Fungi 2018 at Kew Gardens in London, scientists reported that the products of broken down plastics can be further used for building materials. Even to create furniture. Now that’s incredible recycling.

The second one of organisms to combat plastic pollution could be a solution for the recycling of plastic bottles.

Mutant enzyme to aid in recycling of plastic bottles

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that might be a solution to combat ocean pollution caused by plastics.  And all by accident.

In 2016, scientists in Japan discovered a colony of bacteria that had evolved to adhere to and eat plastic. They decided to research its potential to be part of organisms to combat plastic pollution.

As reported in the Science Journal , during the research, the scientists accidentally created a mutant that could play a crucial role in recycling. While studying the colony of bacteria that eats polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is a type of plastic used primarily in the manufacturing of plastic soda bottles, they found the bacteria (Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6) breaks down the strong chemical bonds of highly crystallized PET.

Evolution changes organisms to combat plastic pollution

Rare genetic mutations are often caused by changes in the environment. So it came as no surprise when the scientists learned, during a genetic examination, that the bacteria had undergone an evolutionary process of about 70 years of plastics accumulating in the oceans. They found the bacteria had developed enzymes capable to break down PET, the plastic chosen for soda bottles because of its durability.

While it takes the bacteria only 6 weeks to eat away lower quality plastics, the time it took to break down PET was taking too long to make an impact in cleaning up plastic pollution. The scientists knew that it would take more time for the bacteria to continue to evolve to speed up that process. But during further examination they made an astonishing discovery. As they had probed around in the genetic makeup of the bacteria, they accidentally had created a mutant enzyme.

This enzyme (PETase) enables the bacteria to break down PET within days. Which is a great improvement over the ones naturally living in the oceans, where it takes years to get the job done.

Since PETase breaks down PET into its original components, the scientists hope that it can be used to recycle plastic bottles over and over again without losing any of its original qualities. Which might put a dent into the oil industry, but would be great for the environment and possibly more cost efficient for the manufacturers of soda bottles as well.

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The future of living organisms to combat plastic pollution

Different microorganisms are already being used on industrial levels to aid in the production of things ranging from bio fuels to construction materials. Given the fact that colonies of bacteria grow faster than fungi, the possibility for Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 bacteria to become part of the recycling program are greater than the plastic eating mushroom. Which is not to say that mushrooms don’t have a future in helping us to clean up the environment. Scientist are already involved in the study of fungi to aid with cleaning up after oil spills.

Researchers, including those from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and industries to work hard on getting the process started. And public awareness brings more and more people to the table in the search for other organisms to combat plastic pollution.

As of now, more research is being done before we can expect any of these organisms to be put into action. Let’s hope they will be able to make use of them soon, though. Because Earth and its inhabitants are drowning in plastic.

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