Researchers Discover A Bacteria That Eats Polyurethane. Is That A Big Deal?

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Humanity has produced 8 billion tons of plastics since the 1950s, much of it polyurethane. While ways have been discovered to recycle some of those plastics, none have been found that break down polyurethane, meaning almost all of it ends up in landfills or in the oceans after it is discarded.

One of the major issues with polyurethane is that when it breaks down it produces mostly toxic chemicals, which makes it a poor choice for recycling. So humanity, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to simply bury the stuff or dump it at sea. The Earth is vast and nothing people do could ever have a lasting effect on such an enormous object such as the planet we all depend on for life, right?

Helmholtz Center
Image credit: Helmholtz Center

According to The Guardian, researchers at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research-UFZ in Leipzig, Germany say they have discovered a bacteria that feeds on polyurethane — the first known to scientists to do so. There is even a corollary to the COVID-19 contagion now sweeping around the world. Despite a large segment of society that dismisses evolution as fake news ginned up by George Soros and deep state operatives, nature actually does adapt to changing environmental conditions over time. How do you think COVID-19 evolved?

Bacteria multiply incredibly quickly compared to humans and other large animals, so genetic mutations occur over a much shorter period of time. Given sufficient time — thousands of years at the very least — humans may actually adapt to breathing methane and living in average temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so all is not lost for the human species as the Earth begins to dangerously overheat.

The particular bacteria the Helmholtz scientist discovered was actually discovered in a garbage dump filled with polyurethane waste. “These findings represent an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle polyurethane products,” Hermann Heipieper of the Helmholtz Center research team tells The Guardian. “We found the bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy,” he says. The bacteria is a new strain of Pseudomonas, a family known for its ability to withstand harsh conditions such as high temperatures and acidic environments.

Previously, researchers have identified certain fungi that are able to break down polyurethane, but bacteria are much easier to harness for industrial use. Heipieper said the next step would be to identify the genes that code for the enzymes produced by the bacteria that break down polyurethane.

Professor John McGeehan, director of the Center for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, England, praised the new work, which has been published recently in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology. “The breakdown of certain polyurethanes can release toxic additives, which need to be handled carefully. This research group has discovered a strain that can tackle some of these chemicals. While there is still much work to be done, this is exciting and necessary research that demonstrates the power of looking to nature to find valuable biocatalysts. Understanding and harnessing such natural processes will open the door for innovative recycling solutions.”

While the discovery is good news, Heiperer says it should not be seen as a license to produce more plastic made from polyurethane. Instead, it is vital to reduce the use of plastic that is hard to recycle and to cut the amount of plastic in the environment, he says. And the discovery is not a cure for existing plastic waste. It could easily take a decade of research to commercialize the discovery. “[T]his certainly doesn’t mean that the work of microbiologists can lead to a complete solution,” he says. “The main message should be to avoid plastic being released into the environment in the first place.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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