Reed biology grad discovers plastic-eating bugs
"Actually, it's naturally-occurring bacteria, not 'bugs', that we're researching!" corrected Reed College bachelors graduate Morgan Vague with a smile.
What inspired Vague to go on the hunt for plastic-munching bacteria began in a class of her teacher, Jay Mellies, PhD.
"Internationally, there are about 300 million metric tons of plastic containers sold every year, and only 10% of that is recycled – an alarming statistic, to me," Vague told THE BEE outside the lab where she works on the Reed College campus.
"Plastic is cheap, tough, and everywhere; and, I started wondering what else is tough, durable, and everywhere. I came up with bacteria," she said.
Bacteria are capable of doing amazing things, Vague pointed out, including surviving in all kinds of extreme environments, by "eating" things that other creatures cannot.
"My discovery was finding three different strains of bacteria that show the ability to grow on, colonize, and degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin – the handy-dandy plastic that's in most water bottles and single-use containers," explained Vague.
To find the bacteria, she traveled to the heavily-polluted beach of Galveston Bay in Texas. "This ended up being the richest source of these 'little bugs' for me."
Although getting bags of dirt through TSA screening at the airport was a concern, the student said she had no problem traveling with her biological samples. "I was ready to tell them that I'm just weird because I'm from Portland, but it was unnecessary."
Back in the Reed College biology lab, she started putting the potential samples to the test, and found the three strains of bacteria that did, indeed, grow on and colonize and degrade PET plastic.
"We are hoping to develop a process to make this scalable, and speed it up to the point that it will have significant impact on reducing plastic waste," she said.
No, they're not hatching a plan to let loose a weird creature into the environment, Vague assured. "First, these are naturally-occurring bacteria, without any genetic modifications.
"Instead, we'd like to see an industrial-scale application to reduce the plastic pollution problem in some sort of industrial recycling facility where plastic waste is taken and is degraded into carbon dioxide.
"But my ultimate dream is developing a 'home plastic degradation kit', kinda like a composting kit, that everyone could use.
"When it comes to attacking the problem of waste PET plastic, I believe the bacterial solution is the most viable," Vague concluded.