Could microbes help turn plastic pollution into useful chemicals?

Rubbish washed up on beach.
Could microbes offer a solution to plastic pollution? (Getty)

Millions of pieces of plastic make their way into the sea every day - but could microbes turn them into useful chemicals instead?

Researchers in America have created a microbe which can turn one particular plastic into a chemical which can be used to make perfumes, clothes and even drugs.

The breakthrough is one of several which suggest that much of the millions of tons of plastic which is currently thrown away could be reused.

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What did the researchers discover?

Researchers developed a plastic-eating bacteria (a version of E. coli) which can turn a particular plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), into a useful chemical.

The bacteria turn waste into adipic acid - a fuel for many everyday products that's typically generated from fossil fuels using energy-intensive processes.

Using real-world samples of terephthalic acid from a discarded bottle and a coating taken from waste packaging labels, the engineered E. coli system efficiently produced adipic acid.

The researchers hope in future to look for pathways to biosynthesize additional higher-value products.

Could microbes help beat plastic pollution?

The 2001 discovery of a microbe that could eat plastic in a Japanese rubbish dump has sparked hope that microbes could offer a solution to plastic pollution.

Recent research found that around the world, microbes are evolving to eat plastic - and the finding could have important implications for the battle against plastic pollution.

Escherichia coli (Ecoli bacteria)
Modified e coli bacteria can turn plastic into useful chemicals (Ecoli bacteria)

Microbes in the ground and in seawater have evolved to have enzymes which can break down different plastics, researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University have found.

The global plastic problem has exploded in the past 70 years - from around 2 million tonnes per year to around 380 million.

The researchers analysed samples of environmental DNA from around the world, looking for microbial enzymes which could break down plastic.

They found that levels of such enzymes were highest in the areas with the most plastic pollution.

Could microbes help defeat global warming?

Specially prepared bacteria could be used to turn carbon dioxide (the most common greenhouse gas) into chemicals, plastic or even fuel, a new study has shown.

The research raises the possibility of turning carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into useful chemicals.

Researchers from Newcastle University created a bioreactor full of E. coli bacteria which could capture carbon dioxide and turn it into useful chemicals.

The breakthrough is based on reversing a chemical reaction catalysed by bacteria, by growing the bacteria with a supply of molybdenum.

The new reaction captures CO2, turning it into formic acid (a vinegar compound ants use to ward off predators and which can be used to make fuel).

The findings could mean that one day CO2 is captured and used instead of being released into the atmosphere.