A newly discovered plastic-eating bacteria could save the water sources

Here comes nature's savage answer to plastic waste.
Rupendra Brahambhatt

A team of researchers at Cambridge University has detected the presence of a naturally growing plastic-eating bacteria species in 29 European lakes. While bacteria are known to thrive well on organic matter such as fallen plant parts and dead animals. Surprisingly, the plastic-feeding microbes discovered by the researchers grow better and faster on the remains of plastic bags thrown in water bodies.  

Plastic pollution has increased so that we now have more plastic in the oceans than fish. According to an estimate, more than one million aquatic animals die every year only because of plastic debris floating in our waterways, and the pollution is not just limited to the oceans. An eye-opening study reveals that plastic waste is severely affecting the water quality in freshwater lakes, which is a significant source of our drinking water.

From these polluted lakes, toxic microplastics are making their way into the water and food we drink. Humanity is in dire need of a solution that could help us get rid of plastic pollution, and in these challenging times, the discovery of plastic-eating bacteria seems like a beacon of hope.

The researchers from Cambridge claim that these bacteria have the power to eliminate plastic pollution from water bodies naturally. All we need to do is introduce them to plastic-filled aquatic environments.  

These bacteria would instead consume plastic than anything else

A newly discovered plastic-eating bacteria could save the water sources
Source: CDC/Unsplash

The high levels of plastic pollution in rivers, lakes, and oceans are possibly bringing a drastic change in the feeding habits of some microbes. The researchers believe that maybe the bacteria find it easier to break down plastic for food than to devour other complex organic matter in the lakes. This could be why these bacteria show more rapid growth while feeding on plastic waste than regular natural waste. 

During their study, the researchers also noticed that even when the bacteria had the option to eat readily available natural matter (such as plant leaves) in the lakes, they preferred eating carbon compounds derived from the breakdown of plastic waste. Interestingly, a four percent rise in a lake’s carbon levels (caused due to large amounts of plastic waste) led to a 200 percent increase in the bacteria population. Moreover, the bacteria that regularly consumed plastic became powerful enough to break down other types of complex organic matter. 

A newly discovered plastic-eating bacteria could save the water sources
The blue points on the map highlight the 29 lakes sampled across Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Source: Jacqueline Garget 

Further explaining these changes, senior researcher and Head of Ecosystems and Global Change Group at Cambridge University, Dr. Andrew Tanentzap, wrote, “It’s almost like the plastic pollution is getting the bacteria’s appetite going. The bacteria use the plastic as food because it’s easy to break down, and then they’re more able to break down some of the more difficult food – the natural organic matter in the lake.” 

The researchers observed that the changes in eating habits were more prominent in lakes with more bacterial species. So the breakdown of plastic waste was faster and better in the lakes with a greater diversity of bacterial species. “This suggests that plastic pollution stimulates the whole food web in lakes because more bacteria means more food for the bigger organisms like ducks and fish,” said Professor Tanentzap.

How did scientists confirm the plastic obsession of the lake bacteria?

A newly discovered plastic-eating bacteria could save the water sources
Source: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

The researchers performed an interesting experiment to confirm their findings related to the better growth of bacteria in plastic-contaminated water. They purchased plastic bags and soaked them in water until they started discharging carbon compounds. They collected the water that contained the plastic-derived carbon complexes.  

Then they poured water samples (with some bacteria) from each of the 29 lakes into separate glass bottles. In the next step, the researchers added small amounts of distilled water to half the glass bottles and mixed equal parts of plastic-bag water in the remaining lake water samples. Within 72 hours, the bacteria population doubled in the latter, proving the relationship between plastic waste and bacteria growth.   

Recently, a team of researchers at Queensland University also discovered polystyrene-eating worms. Now, in the form of the discussed lake bacteria, we have found another promising solution to our plastic waste problem. By promoting the growth of plastic-eating bacteria in our water bodies, we can remove plastic from our aquatic environments. Although this is excellent news, scientists warn that such discoveries shouldn’t be used as an excuse to generate more plastic waste.

This is because more research, time, and effort are required to implement the discussed plastic waste solution on a worldwide scale. Meanwhile, suppose we continue to add more plastic waste to our water bodies. In that case, this could further decrease the oxygen levels, harm species biodiversity (including bacteria diversity), and introduce more toxic chemicals into our environment. Such changes could lead us into a situation where there is no scope for saving.  

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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