Plastic Waste in Oceans is Disappearing Thanks to Newly Modified Bacteria

Plastic Waste in Oceans is Disappearing Thanks to Newly Modified Bacteria

PET: Plastic Waste in Oceans is Disappearing thanks to Newly Modified Bacteria


  • Genetically engineered bacteria can efficiently break down PET plastic waste in oceans, a significant step in combating plastic pollution in saltwater.
  • Vibrio natriegens, a fast-reproducing saltwater bacterium was modified with Ideonella sakaiensis genes, enabling it to produce PET-degrading enzymes.
  • PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a common plastic found in items like water bottles, is a major contributor to ocean microplastic pollution.
  • Three key challenges must be addressed: incorporating Ideonella sakaiensis DNA directly into Vibrio natriegens’ genome, enabling Vibrio natriegens to feed on PET byproducts, and producing valuable end products from PET waste.

Breaking Down PET Plastic Waste in our Oceans with Super Bacteria

In a world grappling with the ever-growing problem of plastic pollution, researchers from North Carolina State University have embarked on a groundbreaking journey to tackle one of the most persistent environmental issues of our time.

They are harnessing the extraordinary abilities of two bacterial species. This is to combat the menace of plastic waste, particularly in saltwater environments.

Plastics, those synthetic polymers known for their stubborn resistance to degradation, have inundated our planet. It poses a severe threat to both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The urgency to find sustainable solutions to address the plastic waste crisis has never been greater. Fortunately, science is rising to the challenge.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common plastic used in a wide range of products, from water bottles to clothing, has been a significant contributor to the microplastic pollution plaguing our oceans.

It’s the villain in the plastic pollution story, and it’s time for a hero to emerge.

Enter genetically engineered microorganisms—a potential game-changer in the fight against plastic pollution in our oceans. These tiny superheroes have been designed to tackle PET, the notorious plastic polluter of our marine environments.

The journey begins with two remarkable bacterial species: Vibrio natriegens and Ideonella sakaiensis. Vibrio natriegens is known for its rapid reproduction rate and thrives in saltwater ecosystems.

On the other hand, Ideonella sakaiensis possesses special enzymes. This enables it to break down and consume PET at an impressive pace. These enzymes are the key to breaking PET’s resilient structure.

How the PET is Dismantled with the Bacteria

Researchers isolated the genetic sequence responsible for Ideonella sakaiensis’ PET-degrading prowess and cleverly integrated it into a plasmid—a genetic structure that can replicate independently within a cell.

This plasmid, containing the genetic instructions for breaking down PET, was then introduced into Vibrio natriegens in the lab.

The result: Vibrio natriegens transformed into a plastic-eating powerhouse, capable of producing the necessary enzymes on its cell surface.

This genetically engineered bacterium, now equipped with the tools to dismantle PET, was put to the test in a controlled environment.

Researchers demonstrated that Vibrio natriegens could efficiently degrade PET even in room-temperature saltwater conditions.

This marks a significant milestone—the first genetically engineered organism capable of breaking down PET microplastics in saltwater.

Crucial Challenges

Before these modified bacteria can be deployed on a large scale to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, several important challenges must be addressed.

First, researchers aim to directly incorporate Ideonella sakaiensis’ DNA into Vibrio natriegens’ genome. This step would make the production of plastic-degrading enzymes a more stable feature of the modified bacteria.

Second, they seek to further enhance Vibrio natriegens’ capabilities, enabling it to feed on the byproducts generated during PET breakdown, ensuring sustainability.

Lastly, scientists aspire to modify Vibrio natriegens to produce valuable end products from the PET waste. These potentially open a new avenues for the chemical industry.

While this research represents a significant step forward in the quest to combat plastic pollution in our oceans, it’s important to acknowledge that further studies and experiments lie ahead.

Addressing these challenges will pave the way for the practical application of these modified bacteria to tackle the global plastic waste crisis.


Other Efforts That Have Been Put Forward

In the year 2018, researchers led by Tuan Pham conducted a study titled “Marine Litter Plastics and Microplastics and Their Toxic Chemicals Components.” Their investigation brought to light a concerning revelation.

PET plastics, along with their minute counterparts known as microplastics, are carriers of harmful chemicals that infiltrate marine ecosystems.

These noxious substances pose a dual threat, impacting both our oceans and human health as they enter the food chain.

The study underscores the pressing need for swift action, emphasizing the immediate necessity of robust preventive measures.

To address this challenge, Pham’s team advocates for a multifaceted approach. It includes a reduction in plastic production, improvements in waste management systems and extensive public awareness campaigns.

Furthermore, they champion the innovation frontier, urging the development of specialized technologies tailored to the monumental task of cleansing our oceans.

In 2017, Julia Talvitie and her research team delved into the efficiency of innovative technology in their study titled “Efficiency of Innovative Biodiversity-Friendly Technology for Removing Microplastics from Wastewater Treatment Plant Effluents.”

While their primary focus was on microplastics in wastewater, their findings shed light on a promising avenue forward.

Innovative technologies display potential for addressing microplastic pollution, with applications extending to marine environments, including the challenge of PET plastics.

To broaden the application of these innovations, further research is essential. Simultaneously, the study underscores the importance of holistic approaches.

It encompasses source reduction efforts and public education, to tackle the pervasive issue of plastic pollution in our oceans.


Also, in the year 2014, Marcus Eriksen and a team of collaborators undertook a comprehensive study titled “Marine Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans.”

Their extensive research painted a stark picture. PET plastics have permeated marine ecosystems across the globe, primarily due to human activities on land.

The study’s unequivocal conclusion is that intervention at the source is imperative. To address this widespread issue, the study proposes an array of strategies.

It includes the enforcement of stricter regulations concerning single-use plastics, the strengthening of recycling. Also, waste management systems, and the fostering of international cooperation.

Their overarching message is clear: only through a united global effort can we effectively combat this pervasive problem.

However, the collaboration between science and nature, as exemplified by genetically engineered bacteria, offers a ray of hope in our battle against plastic pollution.

With determination, innovation and continued research, we may be on the verge of a breakthrough that could significantly reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste in our precious oceans.

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