Story at a glance

  • Researchers from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University have come up with a technique to trap and remove microplastics from the environment.
  • They engineered a bacterial biofilm, a sticky substance created by microorganisms, from a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
  • On Wednesday, researchers demonstrated how the biofilm can be used to form sticky microbe nets that were placed in microplastic-polluted water in a lab.

Researchers have developed a new technique to trap and recover microplastics from the environment by using microbes. 

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles less than 5 millimeters long that originate from a variety of sources, including debris from large plastic items that have been broken down over time into smaller pieces. 


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Microplastic pollution has been found in a diversity of ecosystems, including in the deepest parts of the ocean, and are a threat to marine animals and birds that mistake microplastics for food and ingest them. The plastic particles can absorb harmful chemicals like pesticides, heavy metals and drug residues at high concentrations.

On Wednesday, researchers from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University presented the technique at the Microbiology Society’s annual conference. 

“They [microplastics] are not easily bio-degradable, where they retain in the ecosystems for prolonged durations. The result in the uptake of microplastics by organisms, leading to transfer and retention of microplastics down the food chain,” Yang Liu, researcher at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said

Researchers engineered a bacterial biofilm, a sticky substance created by microorganisms, from a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. They demonstrated how the biofilm can be used to form sticky microbe nets that were placed in microplastic-polluted water in a lab. 

The biofilm then trapped the microplastics and grouped them together, causing them to sink to the bottom of a bioreactor used in the study. Researchers then used a “biofil-dispersal gene” that caused the trapped microplastics to be released. 

Liu said the process “allows convenient release of microplastics from the biofilm matrix, which is otherwise difficult and expensive to degrade, so that the microplastics can be later recovered for recycling.” 

As the research is in the preliminary stages, scientists now plan to move the experiments from the lab to the real world.

"We next plan to isolate and identify natural pro-biofilm forming bacterial isolates either from the sewage or from aquatic environments, where they display heightened abilities to colonise and form biofilms on microplastics,” Liu said. 


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Published on Apr 28, 2021