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Scientists believe live bacteria could be eating ocean plastic

It’s hard to believe any living thing could survive on a diet consisting of plastic, but new research has revealed that certain bacteria have found a way to ingest ocean pollution – making it disappear altogether.

If you’ve been visiting Thred for a while, you’re likely well-versed in how serious our global plastic pollution problem is.

We have written a ton about how the 12 million tons of plastic dumped into our oceans each year poses a major threat to marine plant and animal life, and ultimately, how it threatens the well-being of humans too.

We’ve also spotlighted numerous innovations and activist groups that are helping to clear up some of the ocean’s most polluted areas, including the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Innovative catching mechanisms operated by The Ocean Cleanup are seeing great results, and plastic-eating robot fish and magnetic microplastic-attracting powders are being deployed for the job.

But Scientists at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research have noticed that some plastics are disappearing seemingly on their own. In attempts to pin down where it’s going, they’ve discovered something rather weird: plastic-devouring bacteria.

To find out whether bacteria could really be eliminating small amounts of pollution from the sea, the group of researchers took to the laboratory.

They began by feeding plastic to a unique bug bacteria Rhodococcus ruber, which was living inside treated seawater.

What they found was that the bacteria were able to ingest several different kinds of plastics. After digesting it, the bacteria would excrete the plastic waste as carbon dioxide.

According to the total breakdown of the plastic witnessed during the lab-controlled experiment, the scientists have estimated that bacteria are capable of eliminating at least one per cent of the plastics plaguing our oceans every year.

Still, they say it’s likely that figure could be higher. The team has committed to investigating the bacteria further to gain a clearer and more accurate measurement of the ocean’s plastic pollution eaten by bacteria annually.

And while it may seem unfathomable that anything could survive on a diet of plastic and still survive, it’s not the first time scientists have found bacteria capable of this activity.

About a year ago, in a global study conducted in 169 locations, scientists found previously unknown species of microbes living in oceans and soils around the world.

These microbes, they discovered, had learned to eat at least ten different types of plastic. At least 1 in 4 bacterial microbes present had carried enzymes that had potential to break down plastic materials.

These enzymes were unique to the type of plastic pollution in the microbe’s environment, leading scientists to conclude the bacteria had actually adapted to ‘eat’ the pollution. Pretty crazy, right?

Although depending on bacteria to completely clean up the ocean’s plastic nightmare would be naïve, the discovery of these species could offer solutions to dealing with hard-to-recycle plastics in the future.

We’ll have to wait and see what further research reveals, but this is an exciting development that could spark new ways to deal with ocean pollution in the future.