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Could yeast be the answer to beating plastic pollution?

In recent years, scientists have experimented with using special fungi and unique bacteria to help break down the pesky plastics polluting our planet. Now, they’ve discovered a new weapon for their arsenal: yeast.

Plastics may have served humans well in countless different scenarios over the last few decades, but their durability has resulted in us facing an environmental nightmare.

One type of plastic – polyolefin – is of particular concern. It is found in everything from flimsy shopping bags to automobile parts and is notorious for its resistance to degradation, clogging up landfills and littering our surrounding environment.

Like most plastics, polyolefins contain a myriad of toxic chemicals, posing a significant threat to the natural world as well as human health. Figuring out how to deal with them has insofar been a difficult feat for scientists and biologists alike.

In a twist of fate though, one group of researchers have discovered that one humble microorganism – yeast –could hold the key to addressing our polyolefin predicament.


A plastic-eating yeast

According to a report published in the mSystems journal, scientists have discovered a yeast species named Yarrowia lipolytica which is capable of metabolising substances called hydrocarbons – a chemical compound present in polyolefin plastics.

By altering its metabolic pathways and amping up energy production and lipid synthesis, the yeast is able to break down the plastic material before transforming it into a food source.

As a result of this biological process, the scientists were left with valuable byproducts, including citric acid, which is recognised as a key ingredient needed to create biodegradable plastics.

File:Yarrowia lipolytica YGC colonies 54.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Can natural processes help us solve our unnatural plastic problem?

Over the last few years, scientists have been looking for novel ways to address plastic pollution through biological upcycling.

This involves allowing natural organisms – such as bacteria, fungi, and yeast – to break down plastic to its most basic forms so it may be repurposed into something new.

One group of scientists has already observed various bacteria completely breaking down plastic pollution in our oceans, while another group of researchers has begun creating bioplastics with the help of bacteria.

Like the ocean bacteria, Yarrowia lipoly yeast adapts its metabolic processes to thrive on a plastic diet. But the scientists note that so much metabolic energy is used to break down the plastic that it limits the yeast’s growth.

They admit that more research is needed to understand how its processes of degrading the plastic can be optimised.

Still, the discovery of yet another plastic-destroying microorganism is exciting as it brings us one step closer to a more sustainable, plastic-free tomorrow.