Microorganisms from the stomach of cows can gobble up certain kinds of plastic, including the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in soda bottles, food packaging and synthetic fabrics. A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals. The rumen, the largest compartment of ruminants. Ruminants include hoofed animals such as cows and sheep.
Researchers believed that some of the microbes lurking in bovine lumens should be able to digest polyester, a substance whose constituent molecules are bound by so-called ester groups. That’s because for a herbivorous diet, cows consume natural polyester produced by a plant called cutin. As a synthetic polyester, PET shares a chemical structure similar to this natural material. Cutin occupies most of the cuticle, the waxy outer layer of the cell walls of plants, and is abundant in, for example, tomato and apple skins.
To assess how well these rumen-derived microorganisms can eat plastic, the team incubated each type of plastic in a rumen solution for 1-3 days. Then the by-products released from the plastic to determine if the bug decomposed the material into components and to what extent was measured. The rumen solution decomposed PEF most efficiently, but the team reported that it decomposed all three types of plastic.
Looking forward if the team is able to determine which specific enzymes the bacteria use to break down the plastics, then they can genetically engineer those enzymes in large quantities. In this way, enzymes can be produced easily and inexpensively, for use at industrial scales.
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