Morgan Vague, a biology student at Reed College in Oregon, may have found a solution to one of the most urgent environmental crises in the world. She discovered a breeding bacteria that can "eat" plastic and break it down into by-products that are harmless.
One of the most common plastics is PET or polyethylene terephthalate. It is used in bottles, clothing, and food packaging. This type of plastic takes hundreds of years to break down, and it causes damage to the environment.
Ms. Vague stated that the process that will be done by the plastic "eating" bacteria could have a big part in solving the world's plastic problem. Every year, billions of tonnes are dumped in oceans and landfills. Around 300 million tonnes of plastic are thrown away every year, and 10% of it are recycled.
Because of the statistics about all of the plastic waste, it shows that we have a serious problem, and it needs to be addressed immediately. Ms. Vague said that after she learned about bacterial metabolism, she decided to find out if there were microbes that can degrade plastic.
She started looking for microbes that are adapted to degrade plastic in water and soil around the refineries in Houston, her hometown. She then took some samples back to Portland, Oregon, where she began testing 300 strains of bacteria for a fat-digesting enzyme called lipase, which is capable of breaking down plastic and making it "edible" for the bacteria.
Out of the 300 strains, there were 20 that produced lipase, and three of those have high levels of the enzyme. She then put the three microbes on a diet of PET that she got from water bottles. That was when she discovered that the bacteria digested the plastic.
Even though her discovery can help the world with its ongoing battle with plastic trash, she said that there is still a long way to go before we can see the microbes eating plastic at the rate that will be useful enough to dispose of plastics.
Professor Jay Mellies, a microbiologist who supervised the thesis of Ms. Vague, suggested to speed things up and to improve the treatments on the PET to make it more "edible" for the bacteria to eat and eventually train the bacteria to work on different kinds of plastics.
With this discovery, there is a silver lining in this huge plastic problem that we are all facing. People are becoming more aware of the ongoing problem. Although this plastic-eating bacteria is not the total solution, it can still be a part of the solution.