By Shaharyar Lakhani
Most plastic items are manufactured from small base substances called nurdles. Nurdles are tiny round pellets of plastic that are saturating coasts around the globe. These pellets carry toxins, and are therefore detrimental to the wildlife that inhabits these environments by getting in their food. Beaches in Port Aransas seem to be saturated with nurdles, and if something isn’t done soon, the biodiversity in areas like this could decrease substantially.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are trying to solve this problem by using a unique approach. In collaboration with the Ellington lab, the Bioprospecting stream of the Freshman Research initiative led by Moriah Sandy ran experiments on microplastics using plastic degrading microbes from plants and monitoring their activity. So far, the team has found bacteria and fungi growing on three types of plastic: polystyrene, polypropylene, and polyethylene. Hannah Cole, a graduate student in both the Ellington and Alper labs is expanding on this research, specifically studying a bacterium that grows on PET plastic, a plastic commonly used in packaging. Cole’s aim is to find a way to mutate the enzymes in the bacteria to degrade the plastic more quickly. While Hannah has seen success in reducing degradation time, there is still the problem of keeping these enzymes efficient at higher temperatures.
These efforts reflect both environmental consciousness and an appreciation of economics. Cole, Sandy, and the bioprospecting team are attempting to not only degrade plastics using microbes, but also to convert their byproducts into something useful. In this way, it may be possible to create a new ‘plastics cycle,’ in which better designed, biodegradable materials go into the environment, and organisms bring the raw materials back out again.