Microbes may develop to eat plastic

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Plastic.

Plastic pollution on a beach in Bali, Indonesia, in January 2021.
Photography: Agung Parameswara (Getty Images)

Researchers looked at samples taken from oceans and soils around the world and found a huge number of enzymes that can break down 10 different types of plastic.

The team believes that one in four organisms in the microbiomes they researched carries a protein sequence that breaks down plastic, which the team describes as an ‘homologue’ enzyme, meaning something that behaves like an enzyme but may not be identifiable as such. (Living organisms produce enzymes to digest food.) Findings are a sign that some lives are adapting to take advantage of the plastic pollution that has reached every corner of the world.

“Currently very little is known about these plastic-degrading enzymes and we did not expect to find so many enzymes in so many different microbes and ecological habitats,” study co-author Jan Zrimec, a biologist at Chalmers University in Sweden, said at one university. press release. “This is a surprising discovery that really illustrates the scale of the problem.” The research team is Published in mBio.

The problem, of course, is plastic pollution. Millions of tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans each year, according to data International Union for Conservation of Nature. Marine ecosystems contain shocking amounts of microplastics, and since plastic takes a very, very long to decompose naturally means that the world becomes lined with our produced disorder.

But some they seem to be microbes evolve to take advantage of our pollution, a recent team found. Microbial species metabolize plastic in aquatic environments, landfills, and even plastic refineries, they reported.

“We found more evidence to support the fact that the global microbiome potential of plastic degradation strongly correlates with measurements of plastic pollution in the environment – significant evidence of how the environment responds to pressures,” said co-author Alexei Zelezniak, also a biologist at Chalmers University. edition.

The team looked at existing databases of DNA samples from the soil environmentyes oceanic regions around the world, taken from three levels of the water column. Using computer modeling, they looked for protein sequences that would likely have the ability to degrade plastics. They found that there are more homologues of enzymes that degrade plastics near heavily polluted areas, as well as deeper in the ocean, which corresponds to the way microplastics disperse in a water column; the deeper you are, the more microplastic.

To reduce the number of false-positive results for plastic-degrading enzymes, the team also modeled the human microbiome, which has no known plastic-degrading enzymes. Enzymatic effects similar to those in the human gut were treated as false positives.

Zelezniak suggested that if such plastic-degrading microbial communities could be more thoroughly investigated, their capabilities could be designed to target specific types of plastics. Last year, another group of researchers found a strain bacteria that live in landfills which can break the chemical bonds of polyurethane, common and difficult to recycle plastic.

Of course, we should not rely on microbes to solve the problems we are so actively pursuing. Reducing demand and plastic production is probably a better way to a cleaner Earth. Yet this research shows how remarkably adaptable life on Earth is, even in the face of environmental devastation.

More: Microplastics discovered in a key source of drinking water

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