Scientists have identified a microbe that can ingest polyurethrane – one of the most widely used oil-based plastics that is particularly hard to recycle or destroy safely.
Scientists in Germany have identified and characterized a strain of bacteria capable of degrading some of the chemical building blocks of polyurethane.
The plastic is one of the most widely used and is particularly hard to recycle or destroy safely. It also releases toxic chemicals into landfills.
“The bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy,” said Dr. Hermann J. Heipieper, a senior scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Leipzig and co-author of the new paper, in a statement. “This finding represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle PU products.”
In 2015, polyurethane products accounted for 3.5 million tons of the plastics produced in Europe. Polyurethane is used in everything from refrigerators and buildings to footwear and furniture.
Unfortunately, the plastic is difficult and energy-intensive to recycle or destroy as most of these kinds of plastics are thermosetting polymers that do not melt when heated, according to the statement. The waste mostly ends up in landfills where it releases a number of toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic.
The use of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to break down oil-based plastics is an ongoing area of research. However, few studies have addressed biodegradation of polyurethanes like the current paper.
The team out of Germany managed to isolate a bacterium, Pseudomonas sp. TDA1, from a site rich in brittle plastic waste that shows promise in attacking some of the chemical bonds that make up polyurethane plastics.
The researchers performed a genomic analysis to identify the degradation pathways at work. They made preliminary discoveries about the factors that help the microbe metabolize certain chemical compounds in plastic for energy. They also conducted other analyses and experiments to understand the bacterium’s capabilities.
In addition to polyurethane, the P4SB consortium, which includes the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ, is also testing the efficacy of microbes to degrade plastics made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is widely used in plastic water bottles.
Image credit: Agustin Rafael Reyes, flickr/Creative Commons