Wetland Exploration in India Reveals a Plastic-Eating Bacteria That Could Help Tackle Global Plastic Pollution

Single-use plastics such as shopping bags, drinking straws and bottles are a major contributor to plastic pollution.

While investigating their local wetlands, an Indian university stumbled upon bacteria which could be used to break down plastics.

Autor*in Mark Newton, 10.16.19

Translation Mark Newton:

Researchers at the Shiv Nadar University in Greater Noida, India claim to have isolated two strains of bacteria which could be used to biodegrade plastics such as polystyrene. Traditionally, plastics could take up to 450 years to decompose, however researchers suggest these newly discovered bacteria could speed up the process, as well as remove the need for chemical pre-treatment.

According to the Press Trust of India, the Shiv Nadar team made the discovery extremely close to home. Adjacent to the campus is an area of wetlands, which researchers were exploring. During their survey they uncovered various new strains of bacteria. As Professor Richa Priyadarshini of the Department of Life Sciences explains:

“Wetlands are one of the richest habitats of microbial diversity but are relatively unexplored. Hence, these ecosystems are ideal grounds for isolating bacteria with novel biotechnological applications.”

The team were able to isolate two specific strains of bacteria which have been identified as Exiguobacterium sibiricum strain DR11 and Exiguobacterium undae strain DR14. When exposed to polystyrene, the bacteria used it as a source of carbon and produced biofilms – communities of bacterial cells. This changes the physical properties of the polystyrene, releasing hydrolysing enzymes and breaking down the polymer chains.

Usually, plastics such as polystyrene are highly resistant to natural biodegradation. While this property is one of the main reasons for their popularity, the rise in plastic waste pollution has spurred on global rethinking of our approach to plastics. But while plastic alternatives which naturally decompose, such as those made from algaesugar cane and limestone, are currently being experimented with, our dependence on plastics continues to grow. India alone produces 16 million metric tonnes of plastic waste a year, 14 million tonnes of which are non-biodegradable.

The worst offenders in this category are so-called Single Use Plastics (SUPs), which cover a wide range of products which are usually used for an extremely short term period – such as drinking vessels, cutlery and food packaging. As well as taking centuries to decompose, such plastic products also find their way into the rivers, seas and oceans of the world causing considerable pollution and damage to biodiversity and complex ecosystems, especially in the form of toxic microplastics. India hopes to stamp out the use of SUPs by 2022.

Previous methods of degrading plastics often required them to be pre-treated with chemicals, or undergo thermal or photo-oxidation. These new bacteria can work on untreated and unmodified plastics, making them – hopefully – a cheaper and less environmentally-damaging solution.

The next step for DR11 and DR14 is to further research their properties and unlock the secrets of their enzymes. The team hopes new metabolic pathways could be discovered that could further boost the plastic-eating abilities of the bacteria and help develop it into a practical bioremediation tool.

Is Our Growing Plastic Panic a Convenient Distraction From Much Bigger Issues?

Plastic has become one of the biggest environmental issues of the present day - one that has generated more awareness than any other. But is our focus on ditching plastic really the best use of our time?

Kraken the Code: Researchers Discover the Unique Bioplastic Qualities of Squid Teeth

Could the teeth in squid sucker cups be the future of environmentally-friendly fashion?

Fire-Resistant Building Blocks Made From Rice Residue and Ocean Plastic

Many of the inventions that we use in modern society were born from "failure", discovered accidentally, while somebody was busy trying to create something else. That's how we ended up with the microwave and penicillin. And that's also how HiperIn was created, a brand new type of material that could reduce the environmental impact of the construction industry.

The EU Ban on Single-Use Plastics – What Impact Will It Have?

From the year 2021, straws, plates and other disposable plastic products will be banned in the EU. Is this a real declaration of war against the flood of one-use plastics or just a distraction from the lack of any truly effective policies?

Does the Future of 3D Printing Lie in Bioplastic Made of Algae?

Too much algae in fresh or marine water systems poses a threat to ecosystems. A US company is turning that dangerous excess algae into a sustainable material for 3D printing.

Microplastics: Tiny, Toxic and All Around Us

It's hard to try and cut back on plastic. It's useful, endlessly practical and found pretty much everywhere. Unfortunately it's not just there where we want it - it's also in our oceans, soils and even in the air around us, with unknown consequences for humans and the environment.