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A New, Plastic-Eating Bacteria

Students (and friends) Jeanny Yao and Miranda Wang, have recently discovered a bacteria that can degrade phthalates, a common plasticizer. The discovery was made while conducting research as part of the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada, a national competition in science.

All plastic, including the recycle-able varieties, are unable to biodegrade in a landfill. Plastic will break down, sure, but it never truly disperses once in the anaerobic environment of a landfill. Additionally, it will release large amounts of methane as it idly wastes away. Such is also the case with so-called “bio-degradable” plastic. This is a problem when you consider that one, methane is a gas 25x as potent as carbon dioxide  and two, some 33.6 million tons of plastic are discarded each year in the U.S., of which an average of 6.5% is recycled. A majority of the remaining percentage is dumped into landfills.

Bacteria with the potential to degrade plastic has already been known to exist. A key example being bacteria found in the soil of Asian mangroves that could degrade polyethylene. However, Yao and Wang, students of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toronto, respectably, are the first to investigate the bacteria in their local river.


Image source: Google Images

After sampling soil from the Fraser River, Yao and Wang tested the samples to see if they met the necessary conditions to degrade phthalates. At first, the results showed failings 75-80 percent of the time. Four months on, however, they were able to identify three strains of bacteria whose conditions matched those needed. Their discovery won the regional competition and has earned them national recognition for  having commercial potential.

The team hopes to get a patent once they’ve finished college, in addition to more lab experience. For now, we shall have to wait for the bacteria to dissipate plastic, and our anticipation, until it becomes commercially accessible.

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