Genetically Modified Bacteria Tackle Plastic Pollution


Photo: The Official Blog of Edvotek

The modified organism is able to break down PET microplastics, a significant contributor to ocean pollution

Researchers have genetically engineered a marine microorganism to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a contributor to microplastic pollution in oceans.

The researchers worked with two types of bacteria. The first, Vibrio natriegens, thrives in saltwater and multiplies very quickly. The second, Ideonella sakaiensis, produces enzymes that allow it to break down and metabolise PET.

The researchers took I. sakaiensis DNA and incorporated its genetic sequence into a plasmid. Plasmids are genetic sequences that can replicate in a cell independently of the cell's own chromosome. By introducing the plasmid containing the I. sakaiensis genes into V. natriegens bacteria, the researchers were able to get V. natriegens to produce the desired enzymes on the surfaces of their cells. Then, the researchers demonstrated that V. natriegens could break down PET in a saltwater environment at room temperature.

This is the first time anyone has reported successfully getting V. natriegens to express foreign enzymes on the surface of its cells, Nathan Crook, corresponding author of the paper on the work, published in the AIChE Journal, and a chemical and biomolecular engineer at North Carolina State University, said.

From a practical standpoint, this is also the first genetically engineered organism that we know of that is capable of breaking down PET microplastics in saltwater, Tianyu Li of NC State, the first author of the paper, added.

The researchers acknowledged that additional challenges must be addressed, but "breaking down the PET in saltwater was the most challenging" part of their work, according to Crook.

Source: National Science Foundation