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Microbes from the guts of cows can break down plastic

Microbes from the guts of cows can break down plastic
The microbes that help cows break down natural plant polyester in their stomach's rumen can also break down plastic. File Photo by Moments by Mullineux/Shutterstock

July 2 (UPI) -- Microbes found in a cow's stomach can break down plastics, according to new research.

Researchers found the polymer-munching microbes in the rumen, one of four compartments comprising the bovine stomach.

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The bacteria, described Friday in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, could be used to reduce plastic litter in landfills and polluted ecosystems.

The discovery wasn't entirely unexpected, as the diet of cows and other ruminants features a significant amount of natural plant polyesters.

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Scientists figured the bacteria could probably break down synthetic plastics, too, which are similar in their construction and chemical composition.

"A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals," study co-author Doris Ribitsch said in a press release.

"So we suspected that some biological activities could also be used for polyester hydrolysis," said Ribitsch, a researcher at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

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In the lab, researchers exposed three different types of plastics to the cow rumen-derived microbes.

First, scientists fed the bacteria polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a synthetic polymer used in textiles and packaging.

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Researchers also tested polybutylene adipate terephthalate, PBAT, a biodegradable plastic used to make plastic bags, and and bio-based polymer material called polyethylene furanoate.

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The microbes living in the rumen liquid successfully broke down all three plastics much more efficiently than previously tested bacteria strains, suggesting a synergistic advantage among the community of microbes living in a cow's stomach.

These microbes likely produce not one, but a multitude of enzymes capable of breaking down plastic.

"Due to the large amount of rumen that accumulates every day in slaughterhouses, upscaling would be easy to imagine," Ribitsch said.

Ribitsch and her colleagues plan to continue testing the plastic-eating abilities of microbial communities.

"Despite the fact that rumen fluid could be a cheap source for polymer-degrading enzymes, future studies should aim at identification and cultivation of the microbes and enzymes," researchers wrote.

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