Bacteria could be used to fight plastic pollution - study

Researchers found that plastic pollution may contribute to the metabolic cycles of aquatic microorganisms.

Garbage, most of it plastics and domestic waste, is seen along the shore of Jakarta, Indonesia, June 8, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/WILLY KURNIAWAN)
Garbage, most of it plastics and domestic waste, is seen along the shore of Jakarta, Indonesia, June 8, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/WILLY KURNIAWAN)

Many sources of freshwater are extremely polluted with plastic debris. As these plastics break down, they release carbon-based substrates that enable organic growth, but not much is understood about how plastics affect the metabolism of microbes.

In a new peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, researchers found that plastic pollution may contribute to the metabolic cycles of aquatic microorganisms and that these organisms could therefore be used to combat plastic pollution.

In the study, between August and September 2019, the researchers took samples from 29 Scandinavian lakes, each differing in area, average temperature, latitude and depth, as well as in the diversity of dissolved carbon-based molecules.

The researchers also cut plastic shopping bags and shook them in water until the carbon compounds within them were released.

The researchers filled several glass bottles with lake water and added plastic leachate from each of the lakes.

 BEVERLY BARKAT: Plastic waste is a global issue, and must be solved globally. (credit: OREN BEN HAKOON) BEVERLY BARKAT: Plastic waste is a global issue, and must be solved globally. (credit: OREN BEN HAKOON)

Results

“... Our study helps to identify microbes that could be harnessed to help break down plastic waste and better manage environmental pollution.”

Prof. David Aldridge, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge

After 72 hours, the researchers measured the bacterial growth in each bottle by determining the amount of carbon dioxide that had been released. The researchers found that the leachate from the plastic shopping bags was more bioavailable than natural organic matter found in the lakes.

Furthermore, the plastic leachate more than doubled the amount of biomass that bacteria were able to consume when controlled amounts were added to lake water.

The researchers also noted that bacterial growth was 1.72 times more efficient when the leachate was added because the carbon was easier for microbes to access than natural organic matter.

“Unfortunately, plastics will pollute our environment for decades,” said Prof. David Aldridge from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, according to SciTechDaily. “On the positive side, our study helps to identify microbes that could be harnessed to help break down plastic waste and better manage environmental pollution.”