Udderly brilliant! Scientists discover microbes in cow stomachs that can break down PLASTIC — representing a sustainable way to reduce litter
- The microorganisms live in the rumen — the largest part of the bovine stomach
- Here they work to break down natural plant polymers that are similar to plastic
- Researchers tested these microbe communities against three common plastics
- These included PET, a synthetic polymer used to make textiles and packaging
- The team found the rumen bacteria were more effective than single organisms
Microbe communities found in the stomach of cows can break down plastic, potentially offering a sustainable way to help reduce litter, a study has found.
Specifically, the organisms come from the rumen — the first and largest of the four compartments that make up the bovine stomach.
Experts at Austria’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences thought these bacteria may be useful as, in the cow diet, they break down natural plant polymers.
In fact, the team’s experiments found that this diverse community of microbes can decompose plastic faster than single organisms tested in previous studies.
Microbe communities found in the stomach of cows (like those pictured) can break down plastic , potentially offering a sustainable way to help reduce litter, a study has found
Specifically, the organisms come from the rumen — the first and largest of the four compartments that make up the bovine stomach, depicted
‘A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals,’ said paper author and biotechnology expert Doris Ribitsch of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna.
‘So we suspected that some biological activities could also be used for polyester hydrolysis,’ she added, referring to a type of reaction that decomposes plastic.
In their study, the team looked at three different kinds of polyesters — one of which was PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a synthetic polymer commonly used in the production of textiles and packaging.
The other two plastics were polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) — a biodegradable material used to make compostable plastic bags — and polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a bio-based material derived from renewable, plant-based sugars.
A slaughterhouse in Austria provided rumen liquid, which the researchers incubated with all three plastics — both in film and powder form — to examine how effective the microorganisms would be at breaking the materials down.
The team found that the microbes from the cows’ rumens were capable of breaking down all three plastics — PET, PBAT, PEF — with the powdered versions, with their greater surface areas to attack, unsurprisingly breaking down faster than the films.
Moreover — compared to the results of similar studies conducted using single microorganisms — the team found that rumen liquid was more effective.
This suggests that it is the combination of enzymes used by the microbe community, rather than just one specific enzyme, that is key to effective plastic decomposition.
In their study, the team looked three different kinds of polyesters — one of which was PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a synthetic polymer commonly used in the production of textiles and packaging — including water bottles, as pictured
At present, the team have only conducted their work at a small scale in the lab.
However, Dr Ribitsch said, ‘Due to the large amount of rumen that accumulates every day in slaughterhouses, upscaling would be easy to imagine.’
With their initial study complete, the researchers are looking forward to conducting further research in this field — as, Dr Ribitsch noted, microbial communities have been underexplored as a potential eco-friendly resource.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.
DEEP-SEA DEBRIS DATABASE REVEALS EXTENT OF OCEAN PLASTIC POLLUTION
Plastic pollution is a scourge that is ravaging the surface of our planet. Now, the polluting polymer is sinking down to the bottom of the ocean.
The deepest part of the ocean is found in the Mariana Trench, located in the western Pacific Ocean, to the east of the Mariana Islands. It stretches down nearly 36,100 feet (11,000 metres) below the surface.
One plastic bag was found 35,754 feet (10,898 metres) below the surface in this region, the deepest known piece of human-made pollution in the world. This single-use piece of plastic was found deeper than 33 Eiffel towers, laid tip to base, would reach.
Whilst the plastic pollution is rapidly sinking, it is also spreading further into the middle of the oceans. A piece of plastic was found over 620 miles (1,000 km) from the nearest coast – that’s further than the length of France.
The Global Oceanographic Data Center (Godac) of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (Jamstec) launched for public use in March 2017.
In this database, there is the data from 5,010 different dives. From all of these different dives, 3,425 man-made debris items were counted.
More than 33 per cent of the debris was macro-plastic followed by metal (26 per cent), rubber (1.8 per cent), ﬁshing gear (1.7 per cent), glass (1.4 per cent), cloth/paper/lumber (1.3 per cent), and ‘other’ anthropogenic items (35 per cent).
It was also discovered that of all the waste found, 89 per cent of it was designed for single-use purposes. This is defined as plastic bags, bottles and packages. The deeper the study looked, the greater the amount of plastic they found.
Of all man-made items found deeper than 20,000 feet (6,000 metres), the ratios increased to 52 per cent for macro-plastic and 92 per cent for single-use plastic.
The direct damage this caused to the ecosystem and environment is clear to see as deep-sea organisms were observed in the 17 per cent of plastic debris images taken by the study.