Experiment Proves Bacteria Really Eat Plastic– Broken Down Into Harmless Substances

Bacteria Really Eat Plastic

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Graphical abstract of the research study technique. Credit: Maaike Goudriaan, NIOZ

Laboratory experiment reveals that germs actually consume and absorb plastic.

The germs Rhodococcus ruber consumes and in fact absorbs plastic. This has actually been displayed in lab experiments by PhD trainee Maaike Goudriaan at Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ). Based on a design research study with plastic in synthetic seawater in the laboratory, Goudriaan computed that germs can break down about one percent of the fed plastic annually into CO 2 and other safe compounds. “But,” Goudriaan stresses, “this is certainly not a solution to the problem of the plastic soup in our oceans. It is, however, another part of the answer to the question of where all the ‘missing plastic’ in the oceans has gone.”

Special plastic

Goudriaan had an unique plastic produced particularly for these explores an unique kind of carbon (13 C) in it. When she fed that plastic to germs after pretreatment with “sunlight”– a UV light– in a bottle of simulated seawater, she saw that unique variation of carbon look like CO 2 above the water. “The treatment with UV light was necessary because we already know that sunlight partially breaks down plastic into bite-sized chunks for bacteria,” the scientist discusses.

Microplastic Particles Around 2mm

Microplastic particles of about 2 mm huge. Credit: Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ)

Proof of concept

“This is the very first time we have actually shown in this method that germs in fact absorb plastic into CO 2 and other particles,” Goudriaan states. It was currently understood that the germs Rhodococcus ruber can form a so-called biofilm on plastic in nature. It had actually likewise been determined that plastic vanishes under that biofilm. “But now we have really demonstrated that the bacteria actually digest the plastic.”


When Goudriaan determines the overall breakdown of plastic into CO 2, she approximates that the germs can break down about one percent of the offered plastic annually. “That’s probably an underestimate,” she includes. “We just determined the quantity of carbon-13 in CO 2, so not in the other breakdown items of the plastic. There will definitely be 13 C in a number of other particles, however it’s tough to state what part of that was broken down by the UV light and what part was absorbed by the germs.”

Maaike Goudriaan and Helge Niemann

Maaike Goudriaan and research study leader Helge Niemann in the laboratory. Credit: Maaike Goudriaan, NIOZ

No service

Even though marine microbiologist Goudriaan is extremely thrilled about the plastic-eating germs, she worries that microbial food digestion is not an option to the big issue of all the plastic drifting on and in our oceans. “These experiments are mainly a proof of principle. I see it as one piece of the jigsaw, in the issue of where all the plastic that disappears into the oceans stays. If you try to trace all our waste, a lot of plastic is lost. Digestion by bacteria could possibly provide part of the explanation.”

From laboratory to mudflats

To find whether ‘wild’ germs likewise consume plastic ‘in the wild’, follow-up research study requires to be done. Goudriaan currently did some pilot explores genuine sea water and some sediment that she had actually gathered from the Wadden Sea flooring. “The first results of these experiments hints at plastic being degraded, even in nature,” she states. “A new PhD student will have to continue that work. Ultimately, of course, you hope to calculate how much plastic in the oceans really is degraded by bacteria. But much better than cleaning up, is prevention. And only we humans can do that,” Goudriaan states.

Sunlight pulps the plastic soup

Recently Goudriaan’s coworker Annalisa Delre released a paper about sunshine which breaks down plastics on the ocean’s surface areas. Floating microplastic is broken down into ever smaller sized, undetectable nanoplastic particles that spread out throughout the whole water column, however likewise to substances that can then be totally broken down by germs. This is revealed by experiments in the lab of NIOZ, on Texel.

In the current concern of the Marine Pollution Bulletin, PhD trainee Annalisa Delre and coworkers determine that about 2 percent of noticeably drifting plastic might vanish from the ocean surface area in this method each year. “This may seem small, but year after year, this adds up. Our data show that sunlight could thus have degraded a substantial amount of all the floating plastic that has been littered into the oceans since the 1950s,” states Delre.

Reference: “A steady isotope assay with 13 C-labeled polyethylene to examine plastic mineralization moderated by Rhodococcus ruber” by Maaike Goudriaan, Victor Hernando Morales, Marcel T. J. van der Meer, Anchelique Mets, Rachel T. Ndhlovu, Johan van Heerwaarden, Sina Simon, Verena B. Heuer, Kai-Uwe Hinrichs and Helge Niemann, 30 November 2022, Marine Pollution Bulletin
DOI: 10.1016/ j.marpolbul.2022114369

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