facebook linkedin twitter

Microbes in Cow Stomachs Can Decompose Plastic
Cattle may not be the best thing for the climate, but new study shows they could play a role in tackling plastic pollution

July 22, 2021 by Anthropocene
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

This article is by Prachi Patel and was originally published by Anthropocene magazine.

Livestock farming produces a large share of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, what with cows belching and farting tons of methane. But the ruminants might be unlikely allies in the world’s fight against plastic pollution. New research by scientists in Austria shows that the microbes found in cattle stomachs can break down certain kinds of plastic.

The small building block molecules that are left behind can be reused to make recycled plastics, says Doris Ribitsch of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. “We fully believe that microorganisms represent a huge and not fully exploited resource of information that can help us towards a green recycling of synthetic polymers.”

The amount of plastic humans use and discard is growing at an alarming rate. Almost 26 million tons of plastic waste has accumulated in land and marine environments in Europe alone as of 2019, the researchers write in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

Plastics are polymers: long chains of smaller molecules strung together like beads. While synthetic plastics can last for centuries and harm the environment, natural polymers like cellulose, proteins and silk can degrade. Microbes secrete enzymes that can break down these natural polymers.

And some microbes, it turns out, can also break down synthetic plastics. Researchers have in recent years been on a quest to rein the ability of microbes such as bacteria and fungi to munch and degrade plastics. In 2016, a team found a plastic-devouring bacterium in the mud near a Japanese plastic recycling factory. Others have found plastic-eating microbes at waste disposal sites and oil sites. A French company called Carbios has engineered a bacterial enzyme, originally discovered in a compost heap of leaves, which can break down plastic bottles in hours.

Ribitsch and her colleagues decided to investigate the content of the rumen, a compartment of the cow’s stomach. That’s because microbes in the rumen break down plant matter that cows eat before it goes on to other parts for digestion. Yet not much research has focused on analyzing these organisms and their polymer-degrading enzymes.

The team obtained fresh rumen liquid from a local slaughterhouse that would otherwise go to waste. They incubated this with three types of plastics: PET, used commonly in textiles and packaging); PBAT, a biodegradable plastic used to make compostable plastic bags; and PEF, another biobased polymer. They tested both film and powder forms of each plastic. The fluid broke down all three types of plastics, and the powders degraded faster than the films.

Thousands of microbes—bacteria, fungi and archaea—are found in the rumen. The researchers next plan to conduct further tests to pinpoint which of these bugs are key to the plastic degradation. Then they could identify the enzymes so that they can be made on a larger commercial scale for plastic recycling.


Anthropocene magazine, published by Future Earth,  gathers the worlds’ best minds to explore how we might create a Human Age that we actually want to live in.

Prachi Patel is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist who writes about energy, materials science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and computing. Writes for Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, Chemical & Engineering News, and MRS Bulletin. Find her at www.lekh.org.


Source: Quartinello F et al. Together Is Better: The Rumen Microbial Community as Biological Toolbox for Degradation of Synthetic Polyesters. Front. Bioeng. Biotechnol. 2021.

A+
a-

Environment

EPA Head Tours Embattled Communities, Says Help On the Way

RESERVE, La. (AP) — Michael Coleman's house is the last one standing on his tiny street, squeezed between a sprawling... Read More

RESERVE, La. (AP) — Michael Coleman's house is the last one standing on his tiny street, squeezed between a sprawling oil refinery whose sounds and smells keep him up at night and a massive grain elevator that covers his pickup in dust and, he says, exacerbates... Read More

November 24, 2021
by Tom Ramstack
Supreme Court Sides With Tennessee in Dispute Over Aquifer Water Rights

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that Tennessee and Mississippi must limit their use of water from... Read More

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that Tennessee and Mississippi must limit their use of water from an underground aquifer to give each other a chance at it. The ruling takes on added significance as global warming makes water rights a touchier subject... Read More

November 24, 2021
by Dan McCue
Study Finds Significant Bipartisan Support for Corporate Social Responsibility

WASHINGTON — A new, groundbreaking study suggests not only is there strong bipartisan support for corporate efforts to address environmental,... Read More

WASHINGTON — A new, groundbreaking study suggests not only is there strong bipartisan support for corporate efforts to address environmental, social and governance challenges, but that the bipartisan appeal of these initiatives dramatically increases among Americans under the age of 45. The study, “Unlocking the Bipartisan... Read More

November 23, 2021
by Kate Michael
German Ambassador On COP26: ‘Ample Reason To Be Satisfied.’

WASHINGTON — Representatives from more than 100 countries recently gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 climate conference in an... Read More

WASHINGTON — Representatives from more than 100 countries recently gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 climate conference in an effort to pledge commitments and action against climate change, especially actions to prevent temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, which would unleash severe climate change... Read More

November 23, 2021
by Reece Nations
Democrats' Methane Fee Proposal Faces Uncertainty in Senate

WASHINGTON — House Democrats succeeded in including a proposed fee on methane emissions in the Build Back Better Act, but... Read More

WASHINGTON — House Democrats succeeded in including a proposed fee on methane emissions in the Build Back Better Act, but the measure will have to endure scrutiny from centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., before it becomes law. The Democrats' framework for the Build Back Better Act... Read More

House Moves Toward OK of Dems' Sweeping Social, Climate Bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats brushed aside months-long divisions and approached House passage of their expansive social and environment bill Friday,... Read More

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats brushed aside months-long divisions and approached House passage of their expansive social and environment bill Friday, as President Joe Biden and his party neared a defining win in their drive to use their control of government to funnel its resources toward their... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top