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Worms and Bacteria that eat Plastic

Disposable plastics are a major issue for the health of the planet. The problem is that plastic takes an incredibly long time to degrade and we keep producing more and more plastic. The plastic just keeps piling up. Unfortunately, very little of the plastic gets recycled and the plastic bottles that are recycled are often not made into new bottles but rather into clothes or bags.

The plastic just makes keeps adding to landfills and gets into the ocean. It kills animals that eat the plastic and this can have a really bad effect on the ecosystem in the long run. Unfortunately people also don’t seem to be trying too hard to minimize plastic consumption and so the market for disposable plastics is doing very well. Also, some disposable plastic materials are necessary for our modern society. This is really bad news for the planet and all life on it in the long run unless we can figure out a way to destroy the plastic.

It looks like nature already did the hardest part for us. Scientists have discovered that there are worms and bacteria that can actually eat plastic. Part of the reason why plastic takes so long to degrade is that it is such a new and unique material to the earth that scientists think that no bacteria or organism had evolved to break it down yet. Well it looks like those days are over.

In 2016 Japanese researchers said that a bacteria named Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 can break down polyethylene terephthalate, also known as polyester. This is one of the most used plastics in the world. They believe that the bacteria adapted to its environment and evolved to be able to eat plastic. Since then scientists isolated the enzyme that allows the bacteria to do this. They then tried experimenting with it to try and understand how the enzyme evolved and in doing so made the enzyme even better at breaking down plastic!

Scientists plan to try and use this enzyme to break down plastic and make it back into plastic again so that they do not have to keep making more new plastic. This enzyme could even be used to clean up the plastic that is lying around all over the world. Even better than this is that now scientists discovered a worm that can also eat plastic!

Wax moth larvae can actually eat plastic. Just like the accidental strengthening of the enzyme the bacteria uses to break down plastic, it was accidentally discovered that these worms can eat plastic. A scientist and beekeeper had removed a worm infestation in a beehive and placed them into a plastic bag. She tied the bag but when she came back into her house the bag had an opening and the worms had escaped!

In the lab, these worms were confirmed to be able to eat plastic. 100 worms can eat 92 milligrams of plastic in 12 hours. These two discoveries are great news in the battle against climate change and pollution. Nature has provided us with the tools to destroy the plastics around the world and to be able to reuse those plastics instead of making new ones. If a bacteria has evolved to eat plastic and a worm has been discovered to be able to eat plastic, there could be many other bacteria that have evolved or will evolve to eat plastic and there may be many other organisms that can eat it also. This definitely gives some hope for the future since our modern society in some cases cannot and in most cases will not do without the modern invention of disposable plastic.

The information in this article and more can be found at these links:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/apr/24/plastic-munching-worms-could-help-wage-war-on-waste-galleria-mellonella

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/16/scientists-accidentally-create-mutant-enzyme-that-eats-plastic-bottles

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/10/could-a-new-plastic-eating-bacteria-help-combat-this-pollution-scourge

https://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/24/almost-no-plastic-bottles-get-recycled-into-new-bottles.html

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