"Environment" research area

A New Approach to Understanding Plastic-Eating Microbes

Brett Barney - Principal InvestigatorPrimary InvestigatorBrett Barney
Co-Investigators: Bo Hu, Natalia Calixto Mancipe (Graduate Scholar)
Industry PartnersDow Chemical Company
Award Type: Seed Grant - Graduate Student Research

Problem: Plastics in our environment are detrimental to ecosystems. However, we know little about the capacity or efficiency of microbes to degrade these plastics. Are specific microbial communities more efficient than other communities, based on environmental conditions or composition of the plastic?

Solution: Recently, researchers discovered and isolated individual strains of bacteria capable of degrading petroleum-derived plastics. These strains, however, have not yet been studied under community conditions. Professor Barney’s team will evaluate and characterize the ability of entire bacterial and fungal communities to digest common plastics. To do so, the team will build four lab-scale anaerobic digesters to test plastic degradation of different microbial communities under varying conditions. 

Impact: Development of an anaerobic plastic digester and a better understanding of the most effective microbial communities for degradation of plastics would offer a real and potentially scalable solution to the growing abundance of plastic in our environment. Studying microbial performance in a community-based setting should provide valuable insight on characterization under varying conditions, and ultimately the optimization of this remediation solution.