As the world’s plastic waste continues to pile up, scientists are looking for new solutions to help us tackle this global problem. In a new Northwestern University-led study, researchers have discovered an incredible potential solution: a common environmental bacterium, Comamonas testosteroni, that has a natural appetite for complex waste from plants and plastics. Read on to learn more about this amazing discovery and how it could potentially lead to novel biotechnology platforms that harness the bacteria to help recycle plastic waste.
We all know that plastic waste is a major environmental issue. But did you know that there is a common environmental bacterium that could help us tackle this problem? Comamonas testosteroni, or C. testosteroni, is a bacteria found nearly everywhere – in soils and sewage sludge – and it has a natural ability to digest synthetic laundry detergents, plastic, and lignin (fibrous, woody waste from plants).
In the Northwestern University-led study, researchers deciphered the metabolic mechanisms that enable C. testosteroni to digest the seemingly undigestible. This new information could potentially lead to novel biotechnology platforms that harness the bacteria to help recycle plastic waste.
Most projects to engineer bacteria involve Escherichia Coli because it is the most well-studied bacterial model organism. But E. Coli, in its natural state, readily consumes various forms of sugar. As long as sugar is available, E. Coli will consume that – and leave the plastic chemicals behind. C. testosteroni, however, cannot use sugars, period. It has natural genetic limitations that prevent competition with sugars, making this bacterium an attractive platform.
To study how C. testosteroni degrades these complex forms of carbon, Aristilde and her team combined multiple forms of “omics”-based analyses. By examining the relationship among transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics and fluxomics, Aristilde and her team mapped the metabolic pathways that bacteria use to degrade plastic and lignin compounds into carbons for food.
Ultimately, the team discovered that the bacteria first break down the ring of carbons in each compound. After breaking open the ring into a linear structure, the bacteria continue to degrade it into shorter fragments. Furthermore, Aristilde and her team also discovered that C. testosteroni can direct carbon through different metabolic routes. These routes can lead to useful by-products that can be used for industrially relevant polymers such as plastics.
This incredible discovery could potentially lead to novel biotechnology platforms that harness the bacteria to help recycle plastic waste. This could lead to new platforms that generate plastic, decreasing our dependence on petroleum chemicals. With this newfound knowledge, we could one day use renewable resources to convert waste into plastic and recycle nutrients from wastes – helping us to establish a circular economy.
So, if you’re looking for a way to help reduce plastic waste, C. testosteroni may be the answer. With its natural ability to digest synthetic laundry detergents, plastic, and lignin, this common environmental bacterium could someday become nature’s plastic recycling center.