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Microbes could help remove microplastics from the environment

While larger plastics can, theoretically, be easily collected and disposed of, the bits they leave behind, called microplastics, are much harder to get out of the environment -- but researchers say biofilms could help to do it. File Photo by Jennifer Lavers/IMAS/EPA
While larger plastics can, theoretically, be easily collected and disposed of, the bits they leave behind, called microplastics, are much harder to get out of the environment -- but researchers say biofilms could help to do it. File Photo by Jennifer Lavers/IMAS/EPA

April 28 (UPI) -- Researchers in Hong Kong have developed a new way to remove microplastics from the environment.

Their method uses biofilms, large mats of microorganisms, to trap microplastics, which can then be collected for processing and recycling.

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On Wednesday, researchers presented the new technique to virtual attendees of the Microbiology Society's Annual Conference.

In the lab, scientists cultivated mats of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacteria species known to colonize microplastics. The bacteria species is quite common and adapted to a variety of environments.

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When the biofilms colonized microplastics inside a bioreactor, researchers noted the tiny bits of plastics accumulate to form larger aggregates and sank to the bottom of the microbial mat.

"[This] allows convenient release of microplastics from the biofilm matrix, which is otherwise difficult and expensive to degrade, so that the microplastics can be later recovered for recycling," lead researcher Yang Liu, scientist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said in a news release.

The initial lab experiments showed that the microbial mat works as expected, but now scientists want to see if their method can perform in real world settings.

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"We next plan to isolate and identify natural pro-biofilm forming bacterial isolates either from the sewage or from aquatic environments, where they display heightened abilities to colonize and form biofilms on microplastics," Liu said.

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Eventually, researchers hope their technology can be deployed in wastewater treatment plants where it microplastics can be captured before they're carried into the ocean.

Previous surveys have found microplastic pollutant in a diversity of ecosystems.

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Research suggests tiny bits of plastic are being consumed by coral and mollusks, and are even being ingested by deep sea creatures living a few thousand feet below the ocean surface.

Microplastics are formed from a variety of materials, including bags, bottles and synthetic clothing. When these larger items end up in the environment, they get broken down over time, releasing tiny bits of plastic into the environment.

Over time, many of these plastic particles filter into bodies of water. Some get blown into the atmosphere and deposited in faraway places, including mountain peaks and polar glaciers.

Biofilms are often the enemy of scientists and health professionals as the woven layers of microbes can protect harmful bacteria from antibiotics and other treatments.

But Liu and company hope their research will inspire other scientists to think about the potential advantages of biofilms for environmental cleanups and other applications.

"It is imperative to develop effective solutions that trap, collect, and even recycle these microplastics to stop the 'plastification' of our natural environments," Liu said.

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