Among countless microorganisms, only a very small number of kinds can digest plastics. To find such microscopic organisms, researchers have to pick a spot in the wilderness or an urban area, bury petroleum-based plastic wastes, wait until the wastes start to degrade, retrieve them, and check to see if there are plastic-digesting microorganisms present in a decades-long process.
A simple, but effective, screening kit for plastic-digesting microorganisms was developed, the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology said in a statement on September 14. "When this kit is commercialized, South Korean research labs will be able to easily and quickly find plastic-digesting microorganisms," head researcher Oh Dong-yeop was quoted as saying.
The kit consists of a palm-sized petri dish filled with agar, a jelly-like substance obtained from red algae, topped with a thin layer of bioplastic microparticles. Water collected from rivers, oceans, and other natural environments is sprayed onto the agar. If plastic-eating microscopic organisms are present in the water sample, they will eat through the plastic-coated layer, leaving marks on the surface of the agar.
Researchers were able to find plastic-digesting microorganisms with the screening kit in just three days. Water samples collected from a sewage treatment plant and soil were used. Microorganisms in the samples were able to break down the plastic coating of the kit in two weeks.
KRICT said that researchers would establish a database of plastic-digesting microorganisms and cultivate the organisms in large batches. Biodegradable plastics will also be developed based on microorganism research. The research paper was published through the July issue of Green Chemistry, an international chemistry journal.
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