MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: Is there a microbe that can break down plastic?

Date: Tue May 22 18:52:15 2001
Posted By: Steven Korenstein, Grad student, Environmental/Occupational Health, Cal. State Un. Northridge
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 990063850.Gb


Yes, there are certain types of bacteria (Pseudomonas is the name of one 
type) that can break-down some types of plastics. The process is called 
bioremediation. Plastics are made from petrolium based hydrocarbons.  
Bacteria , like all other living things need to eat in order to obtain 
nutrients and energy.  The hydrocarbons in the plastic serve as food for 
the bacteria.  The only problem is that sometimes this process is very 
slow, taking many years.  There are some things we can do to speed the 
process up a little though.  For example, some bacteria like oxygen, so if 
we add some they can eat faster and the plastic degrades at a better rate.

One nice thing about using bacteria to help the environment is that they 
are often easy to grow in a laboratory, in very large numbers just by 
giving them a little food and water.  We can then use them to help with 
environmental problems.  But, sometimes the bacteria already live in the 
soil and are ready to go to work.  I should caution you though.  I think a 
"nappie" means a "diaper" (thats how we say it in America), if so there are 
good reasons not to put it in the ground near where people live or go to 
school, because there can be dangerous types of bacteria it them.  So be 

I don't know of other materials which work as well as plastics for 
strength, flexibility and the other charactorisics you mention.  For this 
reason it is a good idea to recycle plastic materails and use non toxic 
methods of remediation, like bacteria, too keep landfills from 

Good luck!

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