Researchers have genetically engineered a marine microorganism to break down plastic in salt water. Specifically, the modified organism can break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic used in everything from water bottles to clothing that is a significant contributor to microplastic pollution in oceans.
“This is exciting because we need to address plastic pollution in marine environments,” says Nathan Crook, corresponding author of a paper on the work and an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University.
“One option is to pull the plastic out of the water and put it in a landfill, but that poses challenges of its own. It would be better if we could break these plastics down into products that can be re-used. For that to work, you need an inexpensive way to break the plastic down. Our work here is a big step in that direction.”
To address this challenge, the researchers worked with two species of bacteria. The first bacterium, Vibrio natriegens, thrives in saltwater and is remarkable – in part – because it reproduces very quickly. The second bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, is remarkable because it produces enzymes that allow it to break down PET and eat it.
The researchers took the DNA from I. sakaiensis that is responsible for producing the enzymes that break down plastic, and incorporated that genetic sequence into a plasmid. Plasmids are genetic sequences that can replicate in a cell, independent of the cell’s own chromosome. In other words, you can sneak a plasmid into a foreign cell, and that cell will carry out the instructions in the plasmid’s DNA. And that’s exactly what the researchers did here.
IMAGE CREDIT: Ron Lach.
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