A Newly Discovered Microbe Feasts on a Particularly Problematic Plastic

Too much plastic waste.

Too much plastic waste.
Statue: AP

Like other types of discarded plastic, polyurethane waste poses a threat to the environment and human health. In an encouraging new development, European scientists have come across a strong strain of bacteria that appears to be thriving.

New Research published in Frontiers in Microbiology describes a newly identified soil bacterium that can degrade the chemical bonds in polyurethane. The new species, called Pseudomonas sp. TDA1, was discovered by scientists visiting a landfill dotted with brittle plastics.

It takes a while before we see these bacteria decomposing amounts of discarded polyurethane and massivebut it is an encouraging start. The new bacterium was analyzed by researchers at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, and other institutions.

Polyurethane is used in refrigerators, furniture, tents, buildings, diapers, shoes, and everything else that requires flexible, lightweight, and durable materials. Millions of tons are produced each year, and in 2015 the polyurethane market in the United States. used to be appreciated at $ 12.09 billion.

Like other plastic waste, polyurethane takes a long time to break down and is very expensive to break down manually. It is also difficult to recycle because polyurethane does not melt when heated. As a result, much of it ends up in landfills, where it ends up leaks environmental toxins, including chemicals that are harmful to most microorganisms, not to mention carcinogens that are harmful to humans.

The newly identified microbe is a form of Pseudomonas, a group of bacteria known for their hardiness. Pseudomonas bacteria can withstand a number of very harsh conditions, such as acidic environments and high temperatures, which is why they are considered extremophilic organisms.

In the laboratory, the TDA1 strain of Pseudomonas proved to be able to break down the chemical building blocks of polyurethane. In addition, the microorganisms were able to metabolize these compounds and use them for food. This results in a kind of feedback loop, in which the continuous consumption of plastics further feeds the process.

“The bacteria can use these compounds as the sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy,” said Hermann Heipieper, co-author of the article and a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research-UFZ, in the press release. “This finding is an important step in the reuse of difficult-to-recycle material [polyurethane] Products. “

Indeed, microbes are introducing exciting new possibilities in our battle for the terrible amounts of plastic waste who now litter our planet. This strategy is known as biorecycling, where biological organisms, such as microbes, fungi, even insects, are used to break down plastics.

Ithat’s not it the chew plastic organisms herself what scientists care aboutbut rather the chemical processes they use to get the job done. Once researchers have already come up with solutions devised by nature that can then be synthesized in the lab. In essence, scientists are not looking forward to it reinvent the wheel. Developing a method for mass production of the material, is a completely different challenge. It may take years before we see a solution that can actually be deployed in the field.

In this case, the scientists are looking for the genes responsible for the production of extracellular enzymes – the types of proteins – that attack and break down the plastic bonds. They are also trying to figure out how Pseudomonas sp. TDA1 uses this process to acquire its energy. The new study was a preliminary examination of these aspects and future work will continue in this sense.

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