29 European lakes have been found to contain a naturally growing form of bacteria that consumes plastic, according to a team of researchers at Cambridge University. While bacteria are known to thrive on organic materials, including animal and plant remains that have fallen to the ground. Surprisingly, the researchers’ discovery of bacteria that feed on plastic leads to surprising results—they grow quicker and better on the leftovers of plastic bags dumped in water bodies.
There is now more plastic in the oceans than fish due to rising plastic pollution. An estimate states that the pollution in our waterways—which is not just in the oceans—causes the deaths of more than a million aquatic species annually. A startling study shows that plastic garbage is adversely impacting freshwater lakes, a crucial source of our drinking water, in terms of water quality.
Toxic microplastics are entering our waters and food supply from these polluted lakes. The discovery of plastic-eating bacteria appears to be a ray of light in these difficult times since humanity desperately needs a solution that might help us eliminate plastic waste.
According to Cambridge University experts, these bacteria have the ability to organically clean up water bodies of plastic waste. We only need to expose them to aquatic settings replete with plastic.
Instead of anything else, these bacteria would prefer to devour plastic.
The high levels of plastic pollution in rivers, lakes, and oceans may be causing a significant shift in some microorganisms’ feeding patterns. According to the experts, it’s possible that bacteria find it simpler to consume plastic than other complicated organic stuff in lakes. This may be the reason why these bacteria develop more quickly when feeding on plastic waste rather than ordinary natural waste.
Researchers found throughout their investigation that bacteria preferred ingesting carbon compounds produced by the decomposition of plastic debris even when readily available natural matter (such as plant leaves) was present in the lakes. Intriguingly, a 400% increase in the bacteria population was accompanied with a 4% spike in carbon dioxide levels in a lake (produced by high quantities of plastic garbage). Furthermore, the bacteria that routinely ingested plastic developed the strength to degrade other kinds of intricate organic materials.
It’s almost as if the plastic pollution is rousing the bacteria’s appetite, according to senior researcher and head of the Ecosystems and Global Change Group at Cambridge University Dr. Andrew Tanentzap. The bacteria feed on the plastic because it decomposes quickly, and as a result, they are better able to decompose certain more challenging foods, such as the naturally occurring organic stuff in the lake.
The researchers noticed that in lakes with more bacterial species, the changes in eating behavior were more pronounced. Therefore, in lakes with a wider variety of bacterial species, the degradation of plastic trash occurred more quickly and effectively. According to Professor Tanentzap, “this shows that plastic pollution stimulates the entire food web in lakes since more bacteria equals more food for the bigger organisms like ducks and fish.”
How did scientists establish the lake bacteria’s obsession for plastic?
The researchers conducted a fascinating experiment to support their results regarding the enhanced bacterial growth in plastic-contaminated water. They bought plastic bags and submerged them in water until carbon compounds began to leak out of them. They gathered the water containing the carbon compounds generated from plastic.
After that, they divided the water samples—each containing some bacteria—from the 29 lakes into different glass bottles. The researchers then mixed equal parts of plastic-bag water with the remaining lake water samples and added modest amounts of distilled water to half of the glass bottles. The latter showed a correlation between plastic garbage and bacterial growth as the population of bacteria doubled in just 72 hours.