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Earth’s tiniest bugs are officially evolving to eat plastic

In the first large-scale study of its kind, researchers have found that microbes living in oceans and soils around the world have learned to eat at least ten different types of plastic.

Plastic is by far the world’s biggest issue when it comes to pollution.

Most types are notoriously hard to recycle and even single-use plastics can remain in-tact for 500 years once thrown out.

Although human led clean-up efforts are commendable, they’re no match for hard-to-reach areas like mountain peaks and the deep sea. So wouldn’t it be splendid if some creature in the natural world adapted to munch on plastic once it got hungry?

Well, a new discovery suggests this could very well be the case – sort of.

By scanning 200 million genes found in DNA samples taken from oceans and soils around the world, researchers discovered 30,000 different enzymes that are capable of degrading plastic.

That’s right – at least 1 in 4 bacterial microbes carried enzymes that had potential to break down plastic materials. The enzymes present were unique to the type of plastic pollution in the microbe’s environment, leading scientists to conclude the bacteria had adapted to ‘eat’ the pollution.

The scale of the study was huge. The researchers collected soil samples from 169 locations of varying environment types in 38 countries, which led to the discovery of 18,000 new enzymes.

Ocean samples were taken from three different depths in 67 locations and yielded 18,000 new plastic-degrading enzymes – with the most enzymes present at the deepest points.

Professor Aleksej Zelezniak from the University of Technology in Sweden described this as ‘a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it.’

The good news is, utilising these plastic-eating-enzymes could assist us humans with recycling processes.

Once the plastic material is degraded by microbes down to its ‘building block’ stages, new products can be fashioned from what is left – slicing current rates of virgin plastic production.

It’s true, researchers have already identified 95 different kinds of microbial enzymes that degrade plastic – the first found in Japan during 2016. But these are usually found in rubbish dumps and areas that have been plagued with high volumes of plastic pollution.

Almost 60 percent of the new enzymes found were not already classified, meaning that these molecules are breaking down plastics in ways never discovered before.

To find this process occurring in natural environments was a huge breakthrough for the team in Sweden. The next steps will involve conducting lab experiments to measure how much plastic degradation the new enzymes can achieve.

It’d be a long shot to assume that all the plastic in the world will disappear if we just leave it to the bugs. But as always, Mother Nature is showing us that when we mess up – she knows what to do next.

Bring on the plastic eating microbes.