The threat of plastic pollution on our planet – which already ravages oceans and even invades the organs of animals in certain ecosystems – is not only a source of concern for the scientific community, but also of inspiration for the development of innovative technologies that reduce their use or improve waste treatment.
The last one is very curious and, moreover, quite ecological: it is about taking advantage of the microorganisms located in the stomach of certain ruminant mammals, cows, which would be capable of decomposing certain types of plastic. Such a finding could show promise in reducing pollution from waste of this type, combined with a drastic reduction in its use.
Specifically, the rich microbiota that lives in the rumen – one of the four stomach compartments of cows – is capable of decomposing materials similar to plastic waste in a natural way, since the diet of cows normally contains plant polyesters, such as as detailed in the study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology . This proper mechanism of the digestion of these mammals was where the Australian researchers leading the study started, who suspected that this natural process could also occur for other similar materials (the plastic waste that humans generate).
To be more exact, the researchers set out to find out whether polyester hydrolysis could occur inside cows’ stomachs, a type of chemical reaction that results in decomposition.
In a team of scientists, he analyzed three types of polyesters: polyethylene terephthalate or PET, a synthetic polymer commonly used in textiles; polybutylene adipate terephthalate or PBAT, a biodegradable plastic often used in biodegradable plastic bags; and polyethylene uranoate or PEF, a biobased material made from renewable resources.
Live cows were not used to carry out their study; Instead, liquid was obtained from the rumen of a slaughterhouse in Austria to extract from it the microorganisms that inhabit it. Afterwards, this microbiota was incubated in the laboratory along with the three types of plastics mentioned above.
According to their results, the three types of plastic could be broken down efficiently by the action of microorganisms in the stomach of cows. These results have only been possible at the laboratory level, and more research is needed to extract its full potential, according to lead researcher Doris Ribitsch. The study leader also stated in a press release that microbial communities, used as a potential ecological resource , have always been “underestimated and under-exploited” for this purpose.
‘Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology’, DOI: 10.3389 / fbioe.2021.684459a