The students will be highlighting their Plasticure project at a science competition this month. The students will be highlighting their Plasticure project at a science competition this month. The students will be highlighting their Plasticure project at a science competition this month. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Students invent plastic-munching bacteria that could save the planet

Plasticure could make tons of unrecyclable plastic lying in landfills a thing of the past.

Some 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the world’s oceans each year, accumulating in five ocean “garbage patches.” The largest one, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, encompasses an area as large as 1.35 million square miles between California and Hawaii. That’s not to mention the millions of tons of plastic that finds its way into landfills around the globe.

Now a team of students from Ben-Gurion University in Israel think they’ve found a solution to the problem: a bacteria that can actually eat plastic.

Plastic is one of the world’s most abundant pollutants because its chemical and physical properties, which make it extremely durable, also make it very hard to break down. An average plastic water bottle takes a half a millennium to decompose. While recycling efforts have been stepped up worldwide in recent years, plastic is very difficult and costly to recycle, and recycled plastic only has limited applications because the resulting material is usually weaker than the original.

The Israeli student researchers developed Plasticure and have been exploring synthetic biology tools that could be used for efficient plastic biodegradation. They’ve concentrated their efforts on developing a way to break down polyethylene terephthalatem commonly known as PET, a thermoplastic polymer resin used to make bottles, food containers and even clothing.

The Plasticure approach has two parts. First, they’re using protein engineering to help break down PET polymers into ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, both of which are highly degradable monomers. Then, to fully degrade the resulting monomers into carbon dioxide, they’re working to genetically engineer the metabolic pathways of a bacteria found in soil.

The Plasticure team, which is made up of 13 undergraduate students and three faculty mentors at Ben-Gurion University, will present their research at the iGEM 2016 science competition in Boston later this month. iGEM, which stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine, is the premier student competition for synthetic biology. More than 300 multidisciplinary teams from around the world will participate in the competition. Projects will be evaluated both on their results and their ingenuity.

Did you know plastic can only be recycled once?Did you know plastic can only be recycled once? (Photo: Mohamed Abdulraheem/Shutterstock)

Throughout the project, the team met with plastic experts, including those from Coca-Cola and the Genome Complier Corporation. They’ve launched a public outreach campaign using social media and created a computer game to share what they learned to the public and raise awareness for the issues surrounding plastic waste.

They say they plan to apply for a patent for their process, which could even be made into kits that consumers could use to break down plastic at home.


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Related Topics: Environment, Science