Bug found that eats plastic bottles for lunch
Drinking our lunchtime juice from throwaway plastic bottles has caused all sorts of problems for our planet. This week, scientists announced they’ve developed a natural bug that can eat our old plastic rubbish.
More research is needed. But it’s already great news. It could be a solution to plastic waste that can end up polluting our earth and sea.
We’ve talked about other solutions in WoW! before, such as cutting down on our use of plastic: we can drink from reusable bottles, or make plastics that rot away naturally because they’re made from things like seaweed.
But a French company called Carbios says it has found a new way to turn plastic rubbish into top-quality plastic. Last week, independent experts gave its idea a thumbs-up with an article in the scientific journal Nature.
Companies like Pepsi are helping pay for more research. They hope they could make new bottles from old ones.
People call that the “circular economy”. Can you think why?
The secret is an “enzyme”. That’s a tiny kind of bug. We have enzymes in our own bodies. They break our food down into bits so we can digest it.
Scientists sometime call these enzymes “molecular scissors” – because they chop up long chains of plastic molecules into much smaller bits.
The enzyme the French scientists produced in their laboratory is a slightly modified version of one that exists in Nature. It normally eats dead leaves. But they tweaked it so that it LOVES to eat plastic. It does that much faster than anything else we know – not much longer than we need to eat lunch.
So, bon appétit! (As they say in France before a meal – ‘good appetite’!)
Our amazing planet
There are three important things in this story that give us hope about finding solutions for big problems:
World of variety – biodiversity
The enzyme at the heart of this story is one of billions of living things in the world that could help us – if only we look for them. This one was first found chomping through rotting leaves a few years ago by Japanese scientists who hunt for unknown bugs and check to see if they can be useful to us.
We’ve recently learned how to change the tiniest building blocks of living things – their genes. So the French scientists could create hundreds of slightly different “mutant” versions of the rotting leaf enzyme. By testing them all, they found one that was best at eating through plastic quickly.
Everyone thinks we should clean up our planet. But it costs money and so it can be hard to persuade people, including big businesses. The beauty of the new technique, if it works on a big scale, is that it gives companies that use plastic a chance to get top-quality, expensive plastic back from recycling. Today, most recycled plastic isn’t good enough to make things like bottles.
And a final thought…
Japanese “bug hunters” found another enzyme. In a rubbish dump. This one was living not on natural things like leaves, but on a diet of plastic waste.
Since we only began making plastic in the past century, that means this bug “evolved” amazingly quickly to live on man-made garbage. It’s as if Mother Nature is making her own medicine. People have used this enzyme too to break down plastic. But the French scientists think theirs is better.
Plastic is extremely useful. It’s clean, cheap, light, strong. But we throw a lot away. A lot ends in the sea, where it can last for centuries and hurts wildlife.
A bug found in rotting leaves has been engineered to eat plastic. It breaks it down into something that can be turned back into top-quality plastic.
Do you have a good idea for how we can cut down plastic waste? Let us know here – we’d love to write about it!
- Science Mag on the project
- The Guardian on the project
- Carbios, the company behind the story, explains its technique
- A 13-minute film on intrepid “enzyme hunters”: