Microbes across the world and in deep oceans are evolving to eat plastic, according to a new study. The report, published in the journal Microbial Ecology, found over 30,000 enzymes that can degrade over 10 different types of plastics. The large-scale study scanned over 200 million genes found in DNA samples to arrive at the findings.

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The study established that one in every four of the organisms analyzed could degrade plastics. More interesting is the correlation between the number of plastic-degrading enzymes found in different locations and the amount of plastic waste in the same area. The researchers say they discovered that the number of plastic-degrading enzymes found correlated to an area’s level of pollution. Scientists concluded that the microbes were evolving based on the type of plastic pollution present in their region.

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The findings could be the breakthrough needed to develop alternative ways of dealing with plastic waste. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, thus contributing to the world’s pollution problem. While some recent studies have highlighted emerging microbes with the capacity to degrade plastics, this line of science is still underdeveloped.

Aleksej Zelezniak, a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and one of the study’s authors, said that the correlation between plastic waste and the presence of biodegrading enzymes proves that nature is evolving based on human activities. “We found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution – a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” said Zelezniak.

The researchers say they started the study by compiling a data set of 95 microbes already known to degrade plastic. Then, they looked at other microbes to find those with characteristics similar to the 95. In the end, the researchers found 12,000 new plastic degrading enzymes in the oceans and 18,000 new enzymes on land. Soil samples were collected from over 38 countries, while water samples were collected from 67 unique locations.

Researchers now say they will be conducting further tests to study the enzymes’ properties. “The next step would be to test the most promising enzyme candidates in the lab to closely investigate their properties and the rate of plastic degradation they can achieve,” said Zelezniak.

Via The Guardian

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