More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, creating one of the planet’s gravest environmental threats. An Israeli research team believes it has found the solution to this problem in the form of plastic-eating bacteria that could decompose the waste polluting every corner of the world.
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A students’ research team at Ben-Gurion University has been working in the past month on developing a solution for the accumulation of plastic waste with the help of a germ called pseudomonas putida. The group will present its project at a science competition in the United States later this month.
Some 300 teams from leading universities will contend in the annual, worldwide synthetic biology competition iGEM, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.
The Israeli team’s genetic engineering technology, called Plasticure, targets mainly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common thermoplastic polymer resin used in fibers for clothing, bottles and food containers. Five other teams will also present possible solutions for breaking up this kind of plastic.
Plastic has become vital in many aspects of our lives, constituting an average 15 percent of a car’s weight, for example. But only 14 percent of the 311 tons of plastic produced in the world are recycled, while the rest festers in our environment, polluting seas, streets and open areas.
Plastic can be burned in facilities that produce energy from waste, but this is a costly process that also creates pollution. Degradable alternatives to plastic are still too expensive for widespread use.
“We thought about various subjects to research for the competition and I read about the plastic waste problem and thought it was suitable,” says Inbal Segal, a Life science and Social Studies student in the team.
“We put together a research proposal aimed at streamlining plastic breakdown with bacteria. The process has been done before but hasn’t been very effective,” she says.
Segal is one of 13 undergraduate students at Ben-Gurion studying biology, engineering and other disciplines. The team’s mentors are Professor Lital Alfonta, Dr. Ramon Birnbaum and Dr. Idit Dahan.
“The goal is to completely biodegrade the plastic molecule,” says Alfonta. “The energy created in this process can be used to produce electric power.”
In their search for bacteria that can decompose plastic efficiently the students tried to streamline the activity of a protein that breaks down the primary connections of plastic molecules. They also added genes to the pseudomanas putida to help it break down the plastic completely.
The streamlined protein was inserted into another germ – e.coli – and excreted to aid the putida’s action. The biological system they built combines the two bacteria for a better breakdown of the plastic.
Although the system still doesn’t decompose the plastic completely, the team is in the process of developing germs that may increase the process’ efficiency.
The team will present the results it achieved so far to the competition judges and on the organizers’ Internet site. Their project will be judged not only by its immediate results but for its scientific vision as well. The students plan to register a patent for the protein improving process, in the hope of using it commercially in the future to develop waste breakdown methods.
According to their vision, the bacterium will be used in facilities for breaking down large quantities of plastic waste. The energy released in the process will be used to produce electric power, some of which will be used for the breakdown process itself. Other processes may be required, such as using ultra-violet radiation to soften the plastic to make the bacteria’s work easier.
In the future, they say, it may be possible to manufacture kits for home use, with which consumers could break down their own plastic waste.
The project is supposed to be tested in a laboratory. The students have raised contributions from the Be’er Sheva municipality, the Neot Hovav industrial local council and the Adama Makhteshim factory operating in the region. They have also set up stands at various events in Be’er Sheva to advertise their project.