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Scientists discover plastic-eating microbe

Polyurethane is used to make all kinds of plastic materials, including foam insulation for construction. Photo by pixabay/CC
Polyurethane is used to make all kinds of plastic materials, including foam insulation for construction. Photo by pixabay/CC

March 27 (UPI) -- Scientists in Germany have identified a new strain of bacteria that breaks down the chemical building blocks of polyurethane, or PU, a polymer used to make a variety of plastic materials. In effect, the bacteria eats plastic's essential compounds.

Researchers detailed their discovery this week in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

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"The bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy," study co-author Hermann J. Heipieper, senior scientist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research-UFZ in Leipzig, Germany and co-author of the new paper, said in a press release. "This finding represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle PU products."

Polyurethane is used in everything from construction materials and footwear to refrigerator components and skateboard wheels. The polymer is prized for its lightweight, insulating and flexible properties, but recycling it is energy-intensive. Most polyurethane ends up in landfills, where it can release a variety of toxins, some of them carcinogenic.

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In an effort to curb the problem of PU waste, Heipieper and his colleagues turned to microorganisms. Most studies have investigated on the ability of bacteria and fungi strains to break down oil-based plastics, but few have looked at polyurethane.

While surveying bacteria communities living among plastic waste, scientists identified and isolated a strain called Pseudomonas sp. TDA1. The bacteria showed promise in its ability to target the chemical bonds that form polyurethane plastics.

In addition to being able to eat polyurethane, the bacteria strain is part of a family of bacteria known for their ability to withstand toxins.

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"That trait is also named solvent-tolerance and is one form of extremophilic microorganisms," said co-author Christian Eberlein, scientist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research-UFZ.

Genomic analysis of the bacteria helped the researchers identify possible pathways for metabolizing the PU chemical compounds. Scientists hope further genomic investigations will reveal the extracellular enzymes, or exoenzymes, that the bacteria uses to trigger compound-degrading biochemical reaction.

If future research efforts are successful, scientists could engineer bacteria to more efficiently degrade polyurethane compounds.

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