Polymer industry waste, can microbes degrade it?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: School of Life Sciences


Anthropogenic pollution by industrial waste is both ubiquitous and well-characterised. An area of this that has recently received increasing attention is ocean plastic pollution. Pollution of the oceans by synthetic polymers, such as plastics, is now widespread and current estimates put the annual input of plastic waste into the ocean at 4.8 to 12.7 million tons. Much of this plastic waste is known to exist as microplastics (plastics <5 mm). Microplastics may enter the ocean via a number of routes, for example: i) accidental release during the manufacturing process of larger plastics (plastic resin pellets); ii) plastics specifically manufactured to be small (i.e. in facial cleansers/exfoliators); or iii) breakdown of larger plastics.
Bacterial strains that are capable of the degradation of plastics have been isolated from environmental samples, however, it has been found previously that a bacterial consortia, or community, may be better at degrading plastic than an individual strain. Artificial selection - the application of a pressure on organisms to induce the expression of desirable traits - has been used to evolve bacterial communities that are better able to breakdown contaminants than their environmental counterparts.
The project will focus on evolving a microbial community for the degradation of synthetic polymers and characterising the communities that are evolved. The aim of this is to determine whether an artificially evolved microbial community may be better at degrading polymers than either the original environmental community or individual bacterial strains known to be capable of polymer degradation.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M01116X/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2023
1643043 Studentship BB/M01116X/1 05/10/2015 30/09/2019 Robyn Wright
Description The aim of this project is to determine whether marine microorganisms can degrade polymer industry waste, such as plastics and also plasticisers. The method that has been applied for this is artificial selection of microbial communities for polymer degradation. An initial 'proof of concept' experiment has been carried out using the natural polymer, chitin. Chitin is already known to be degraded by a wide range of marine microorganisms, and high throughput enzyme activity assays already exist to test the potential for communities to degrade chitin. This experiment has showed that it is possible to artificially select microbial communities for polymer degradation, but that it is important to constantly test for optimal incubation time to achieve the best results. This method is now being applied to the common packaging plastic, poly(ethylene terephthalate) and its monomer bis(2-hydroxy ethyl terephthalate).
Exploitation Route The artificial selection method that I have used and developed has not previously been used for polymers, so others may use it for a wide range of polymers.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description Findings were used to help inform a public science engagement evening aimed at increasing awareness of plastic pollution and strategies to help mitigate the impact of it.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Society Conference Grants
Amount £250 (GBP)
Funding ID SCG17/433 
Organisation Microbiology Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country Unknown
Start 04/2017 
End 04/2017
Description Oceans Open Evening 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An oceans open evening was organised and advertised to the general public. This included approximately 45 minutes of presentations on the importance of the oceans, and in particular marine microorganisms, and then the dangers of plastic pollution. This was followed by approximately 1.5 hours of laboratory tours and informal discussion at interactive stands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017