Marine bacteria and fungi produce enzyme that can degrade several kind of plastics back to their raw materials
5th June 2023, World Environment Day 2023 focused on “Beat Plastic Pollution.” The beauty and vitality associated with the ocean are being overshadowed by the alarming menace of plastic pollution. The oceans, once teeming with picturesque landscapes, have become dumping grounds for massive amounts of plastic waste. This environmental crisis poses a dire threat to marine life, particularly turtles, as they often mistake plastic for their favored food, jellyfish, leading to fatal consequences upon ingestion. Seahorses, whales, and other marine species also suffer significant harm due to plastic waste.
Even the remote polar oceans are not immune to plastic pollution. In a groundbreaking discovery during the 34th Antarctic expedition, scientists detected microplastics, underscoring their pervasive distribution. Microplastics, tiny plastic particles with a diameter less than five millimeters, emerge from both primary sources, such as industrial plastic discharge, and secondary sources, like plastic fragmentation. These minuscule particles pose grave dangers to marine organisms, infiltrating their bodies and even entering the human food chain, raising serious health concerns.
Mild conditions for treatment
Addressing plastic waste is an urgent priority. While landfills and incineration are commonly used methods, they contribute to secondary pollution, energy consumption, and air pollution. Seeking sustainable alternatives, scientists are exploring the potential of microbes and enzymes. One particular avenue of research involves identifying efficient depolymerization microbes from ocean environments.
Researchers have collected plastic-contaminated samples from various shorelines, leading to the discovery of a bacterial consortium, CS6, with potent plastic-degrading abilities. This consortium showed promising results in degrading PET and PE films, common plastic types. Additionally, a marine fungus demonstrated the capacity to colonize and degrade PE films. After an optimization of the conditions, it appeared that this degradation process could be fast and efficient.
Microbes for their own benefit
The proposed mechanism behind microbial degradation involves bacterial communities attaching to plastic surfaces, secreting enzymes to break down the plastics and derive energy from degradation products. As plastics degrade, these microorganisms thrive. While microbial solutions hold promise, challenges remain, including enhancing degradation rates.
The plight of marine life, the ubiquity of microplastics, and the need for sustainable solutions underscore the importance of immediate action to address this environmental crisis. Scientists’ efforts to harness the potential of microbes and enzymes offer hope for a cleaner, plastic-free future, but the road ahead necessitates collaboration, innovation, and widespread awareness to truly beat plastic pollution.