Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic
The scientists discovered the strain of bacteria, known as pseudomonas bacteria, at a dump site loaded with plastic waste, where they noticed that it was attacking polyurethane. Polyurethane's are ubiquitous in plastic products because they are pliable and durable. However, when they reach the end of their usefulness and end up in landfills, they decompose slowly and slowly release toxic chemicals into the soil as they degrade. They are also notoriously difficult to recycle, according to Courthouse News.
Since it is so difficult to recycle, millions and millions of products containing polyurethane like sneakers, diapers, kitchen sponges and foam installation end up in landfills. Polyurethane usually kills most bacteria too, so it surprised the researchers to find a strain that not only survived, but also used polyurethane to thrive, according to The Guardian. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.
"The bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy," Hermann J. Heipieper, a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Leipzig, Germany and co-author of the new paper, said in a statement. "These findings represent an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle polyurethane products."
Pseudomonas bacteria are part of a family of microorganisms known for its ability to withstand harsh conditions, such as high temperatures and acidic environments.
While the little germs offer hope for a solution to the plastic crisis polluting land and water around the globe, scientists are still a long way away from being able to use the bacteria on a large scale. Heipieper estimated that it could be 10 years before the bacteria are ready to consume plastic at a large scale. He added that in the meantime, it is important to reduce the use of non-recyclable plastic and to cut the amount of plastic used around the world, according to The Guardian.
Our reliance on plastic has created a waste crisis. In 2015, polyurethane products alone accounted for 3.5 million tons of the plastics produced in Europe, according to a press release from the journal that published the study. More than 8 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, according to The Guardian, and a vast majority of it has polluted the world's land and oceans, or ends up in landfills. Scientists say it threatens a "near permanent contamination of the natural environment."
As for polyurethane, its heat resistance make it a difficult and energy intensive to melt down. Because of that, it is disproportionately tossed into landfills around the world where its slow degradation releases toxic — and often carcinogenic — chemicals, according to Courthouse News.
In the laboratory, the researchers fed key components of polyurethane to the bugs. "We found the bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy," Heipieper said, as The Guardian reported.
"When you have huge amounts of plastic in the environment, that means there is a lot of carbon and there will be evolution to use this as food," Heipieper said as The Guardian reported.
"Bacteria are there in huge numbers and their evolution is very fast. However, this certainly doesn't mean that the work of microbiologists can lead to a complete solution," he added. "The main message should be to avoid plastic being released into the environment in the first place."
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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