Plastics are a growing problem for our environment, in part because they are so difficult to recycle. Now scientists have identified a microbe that might be able to help break down one of the toughest plastics around.
The bacterium, which was found at a waste site where the plastic had been dumped, is the first that is known to attack polyurethane. Millions of tonnes of the plastic is produced every year to use in items such as sports shoes, nappies, kitchen sponges and as foam insulation but it is mostly sent to landfill because of it too tough to recycle.
When broken down it can release toxic and carcinogenic chemicals which would kill most bacteria but the newly discovered strain is able to survive. While the research has identified the bug and some of its key characteristics, much work remains to be done before it can be used to treat large amounts of waste plastic.
According to the team, Pseudomonas sp. TDA1 comes from a group of bacteria known for being able to handle toxic organic compounds and is also part of the family of extremophile microorganisms that can survive in the harshest of environments – including the toxic environment of degrading plastic.
It's a promising start for a bacteria-based solution to our plastic recycling problem but it is only a start. We'll need to know much more about the biochemical processes behind this metabolism before we can start putting Pseudomonas sp. TDA1 to good use.