AUG 31, 2021 6:57 AM PDT

How Cow Stomachs Might Help Us Reduce Plastic Waste

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Plastic is a long-lasting material that has many uses, which has led to a proliferation of plastic packaging that is polluting our planet. While its extreme durability has given it many advantages and applications, that also means it's difficult to get rid of once we're done with it. Single-use plastics may be convenient, but they are causing serious harm to the planet, and they can be found in many animals because tiny bits of it called microplastics have entered the food chain.

Image credit: Pixabay

One potential solution to the accumulation of plastic is recycling, but there are many kinds of it and they can't all be recycled together, and some plastics cannot be recycled. Many countries have reduced the amount of plastic trash they're willing to take on. Not much plastic actually gets recycled - it's estimated that about 9 percent of all plastic that is generated ends up being recycled.

Microbes may be another solution. If we can identify microorganisms that can metabolize the chemicals that compose plastic, we may be able to use them to start eliminating our plastic problem. Scientists have identified microbes that can break plastic down, including some that are found in one of the stomachs of cows. The findings have been reported in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

Plant polymers get digested in the four stomachs of cows, one of these stomachs is called the rumen. It seems that microbes that live there can digest some kinds of plastic.

"A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals, so we suspected that some biological activities could also be used for polyester hydrolysis," explained Dr. Doris Ribitsch of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna.

Some plastics are polyesters, like polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE). In polyester hydrolysis, these compounds get broken down. Since the microbes could perform this reaction, the researchers suspected they would be able to degrade plastic.

The investigators got samples of the liquid in rumen from an Austrian slaughterhouse, and then incubated that liquid with three types of plastic: PET, PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate, sometimes used in plastic bags), and PEF, (polyethylene furanoate, made from natural sources).

The scientists determined that all three plastics were broken down by the liquid rumen. Samples of the plastic in powder form were degraded more quickly than plastic films. The rumen liquid seemed to be more efficient at dealing with plastic than colonies of a single type of microbe; the researchers suggested that a combination of microbial enzymes, instead of one from a single type of microbe, was making a difference.

Unfortunately this work is only being tested, and has not been used in natural conditions yet. But the researchers noted that rumen is easy to obtain in large quantities because of agriculture so it could be scaled up. However, Ribitsch acknowledged that microbial research can be expensive and cost-prohibitive. Hopefully, we'll soon be able to utilize some methods like this one to reduce plastic waste in the environment.

Sources: Frontiers, Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
JUL 07, 2021
Cancer
Chemotherapy Disrupts Gut Bacteria in Cancer Patients
JUL 07, 2021
Chemotherapy Disrupts Gut Bacteria in Cancer Patients
Researchers from Australia have found that the conventional chemotherapy used to treat various cancers disrupts the comp ...
JUL 25, 2021
Microbiology
When Food is Scarce, Ocean Microbes Cooperate to Gather More
JUL 25, 2021
When Food is Scarce, Ocean Microbes Cooperate to Gather More
Microbes live everywhere, even in the open ocean. They have to compete for survival just like other organisms but even t ...
JUL 27, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
Nanobodies May Prevent Complications From Infection in Transplant Recipents
JUL 27, 2021
Nanobodies May Prevent Complications From Infection in Transplant Recipents
In recent years, scientists java turned their attention to small antibodies that are produced by animals like sharks, ca ...
JUL 30, 2021
Microbiology
Viruses Captured at High Resolution as They Moved in 3D
JUL 30, 2021
Viruses Captured at High Resolution as They Moved in 3D
Scientists have used powerful tools to get a better look at viruses at they move through liquid. A new study that was re ...
AUG 21, 2021
Coronavirus
The Molecular Gate That Enables SARS-CoV-2 to Infect Cells
AUG 21, 2021
The Molecular Gate That Enables SARS-CoV-2 to Infect Cells
Researchers investigating how the SARS-CoV-2 virus gets into cells to cause COVID-19 learned early on in the pandemic th ...
AUG 26, 2021
Coronavirus
Researchers View COVID-19 Progression in a Live Animal Model
AUG 26, 2021
Researchers View COVID-19 Progression in a Live Animal Model
Scientists have used a mouse model to visualize the progression of a SARS-CoV-2 infection as it led to sometimes fatal c ...
Loading Comments...