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Could a Seaweed-Eating Microbe Help Solve the Ocean Plastic Crisis?

Researchers have found a way to use microbes living on common seaweed to make plastics. Daniela Dirscherl / Getty Images

The use of traditional plastics poses a major threat to the world's oceans: If current trends continue, plastics will outnumber fish by 2050. But the oceans might also contain the solution to this massive problem, researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) have discovered.


That solution comes in the form of a microorganism that feeds on seaweed, which researchers have used to create a biodegradable polymer.

"Plastic from fossil sources is one of the most polluting factors in the oceans," Dr. Alexander Golberg of TAU's Porter School of Environmental and Earth Sciences said in a university press release published by Phys.org Monday. "We have proved it is possible to produce bioplastic completely based on marine resources in a process that is friendly both to the environment and to its residents."

The invention was a collaboration between Goldberg and Professor Michael Gozin of TAU's School of Chemistry, who detailed their findings in the January issue of Bioresource Technology.

Other researchers have developed biodegradable alternatives to petroleum-based plastic, but they all require land and fresh water to grow the plants used to make the alternative plastics, Goldberg explained. The innovation of the Tel Aviv researchers was to develop a process that could be completed in sea water, an important development for land-and-water-scarce countries like Israel.

"There are already factories that produce this type of bioplastic in commercial quantities, but they use plants that require agricultural land and fresh water. The process we propose will enable countries with a shortage of fresh water, such as Israel, China and India, to switch from petroleum-derived plastics to biodegradable plastics," Goldberg said.

The spokesperson at the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi Avigail C. J. Spira celebrated the discovery on Twitter.

This isn't the first time that Goldberg has figured out out to put seaweed to sustainable use. His Laboratory for Environmental Bioengineering has also developed ways to use offshore seaweed farms to create ethanol biofuels, proteins and sugars, TAU's Department of Environmental Studies reported.

For their most recent paper, Goldberg and Gozin used the common seaweed Ulva and the microorganism Haloferax mediterranei. But Goldberg said the next step will be to experiment with different combinations.

"We are now conducting basic research to find the best bacteria and algae that would be most suitable for producing polymers for bioplastics with different properties," he said in the press release.

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