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Who Said All Bacteria Were Bad? A Microscopic Solution to the Macroscopic Plastic Problem

February 19, 2019

Hiking along the tracks of bodies of water across the world, we, as humans, are no longer in the hustle and bustle of a city. Instead, we are whisked away to a natural sanctuary, where we are belittled by towering trees, calmed by the soft flow of the waves, filled with the music of benign birds, and blanketed by a faint breeze. However, travel further and one will see sure-fire signs of human touch; entire sections of rivers that are covered by water bottles, chip bags, and grocery bags. The world has produced a total of 8.3 billion tons of plastic, but only about 21 percent is dealt with in the U.S., according to a study in the prestigious Science Advances Journal. The rest, 6.3 billion, ends up in the landfills around the world, also according the same study. That is the same as about 3 billion U.S. cars, or two billion elephants. And the largest purchaser of this plastic is currently not accepting it anymore; after the China ban, we may have a new 111 million ton-plastic problem by 2030, according to a study by the University of Georgia.

The current myriad production of plastic is choking wildlife, polluting waterways and overall pushing the environment to the brink of instability. It is a self-made pandemic that scientists are eager to cure, and they have come up with some viable options, ranging from biodegradable plastic to large industrial floating nets to clean up waterways. However, there is a newly discovered solution, with something so small people cannot see it with their naked eye.

In contrast with large nets, a microorganism could be a potential solution.  A team of Japanese researchers stumbled upon a species of bacteria, which produces enzymes to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the most common forms of plastic. It conceals itself amongst large piles of plastic bottles and in benthic mud on banks of rivers. The bacteria has been given the name Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, which only savvy ecologists would understand. Put in common language, this bacteria has been put under the recently created category of Geobacter, a group of bacteria with extraordinary applications. These same Japanese researchers had to put their discovery to the test. They conducted a study to determine the hydrolysis (breaking down) time of PET plastics with these extraordinary bacteria­ but to their dismay, it took close to six weeks to break down an entire water bottle. 

After these results, one may be thinking that this isn’t viable option. Most experts would concur. However, next time you go to the grocery store, take a look at those labels in the meat section. “No GMOs” are proudly paraded on most of the packaging. Science has revolutionized the size of animals, making them bigger, or more resilient to disease; they have genetically modify organisms! Who knows, with some growth hormones to beef up these tiny guys, they might be ready to knock out plastic water bottles like Muhammad Ali, and as intrinsic to the survival of the planet as water is to humans.  

Also, there is an added bonus to these bacteria; when breaking down molecules, they produce electricity, putting them in the vanguard of discoveries of the power of bacteria. Solutions like biodegradable plastic are novel discoveries. Activism to recycle more plastic and use less plastic are necessary. But those are for the future, not cleaning up the mess we have already made. These bacteria may be the cure for our planet. What do you think? I hope this article gave a scope into the usefulness of nature, and the many coexistent species yet.

Akul Goel is a freelance writer. 


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