Plastic pollution can be removed from lakes by natural bacteria: researchers

Plastic pollution can be removed from lakes by naturally occurring bacteria, new research reveals.

A study Scientists from the University of Cambridge on 29 European lakes have found that certain bacteria grow faster and more efficiently on the remains of plastic bags than on natural material such as leaves and twigs.

The research team explained that bacteria break down carbon compounds in plastic to use as food for their growth.

Samuel Woodman and Eleanor Sheridan conduct field sampling for the study of 29 European lakes which found that plastic pollution can be removed from lakes by naturally occurring bacteria.
AJ Tanentza, SWNS/Zenger

They say enriching waters with particular species of bacteria could be a “natural” way to remove plastic pollution from the environment.

The effect is pronounced because the rate of bacterial growth more than doubled when plastic pollution increased the overall level of carbon in the lake water by just 4%.

The results, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communicationsuggest that plastic pollution in lakes “primes” bacteria for rapid growth – the bacteria not only break down plastic, but are then more capable of breaking down other naturally occurring carbon compounds in the lake.

It has been found that bacteria in the lake favor plastic-derived carbon compounds over naturally occurring compounds.

The research team believe this is because the carbon compounds in plastics are easier to break down and use as food for bacteria.

Study on plastic pollution in Norway
Study lake in Norway, in an undated photograph. A study of 29 European lakes conducted by the University of Cambridge found that plastic pollution can be removed from lakes by naturally occurring bacteria.
Samuel Woodman, SWNS/Zenger

Scientists warn that it does not tolerate ongoing plastic pollution. Some of the compounds in plastics can have toxic effects on the environment, especially at high concentrations.

The study’s lead author, Dr Andrew Tanentzap from Cambridge’s Department of Plant Science, said: “It’s almost as if plastic pollution is making bacteria hungry.

“The bacteria first use the plastic as food because it’s easy to break down, and then they’re better able to break down some of the tougher foods – the lake’s natural organic matter.”

He added: “This suggests that plastic pollution stimulates the entire food chain in lakes, as more bacteria means more food for larger organisms like ducks and fish.”

The effect varied depending on the diversity of bacterial species present in the lake water – lakes with more different species were better at breaking down plastic pollution.

A study published by the same team last year found that European lakes are potential “hotspots” of microplastic pollution.

When plastics break down, they release simple carbon compounds.

The researchers found that these are chemically distinct from the carbon compounds released during the decomposition of organic matter like leaves and twigs.

Carbon compounds in plastics have been shown to come from additives unique to plastic products, including adhesives and softeners.

The new study also found that bacteria removed more plastic pollution in lakes that had fewer unique natural carbon compounds. This is because the bacteria in the lake water had fewer other food sources.

The results will help prioritize lakes where pollution control is most urgent. If a lake has lots of plastic pollution, but low bacterial diversity and lots of different natural organic compounds, then its ecosystem will be more vulnerable to damage.

Eleanor Sheridan performing the experiment
Eleanor Sheridan performing the experiment as part of the study of 29 European lakes which found that plastic pollution can be removed from lakes by naturally occurring bacteria.
Samuel Woodman, SWNS/Zenger

Professor David Aldridge from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who was also involved in the study, said: “Unfortunately, plastics will pollute our environment for decades.

“On the positive side, our study helps identify microbes that could be harnessed to help break down plastic waste and better manage environmental pollution.”

The study involved sampling 29 lakes across Scandinavia between August and September 2019. To assess a range of conditions, these lakes differed in latitude, depth, area, mean surface temperature and diversity of dissolved carbon-based molecules.

The scientists cut up plastic bags from four major UK retail chains and shook them in water until their carbon compounds were released.

At each lake, glass bottles were filled with water from the lake. A small amount of “plastic water” was added to half of them, to represent the amount of carbon leached from plastics into the environment, and the same amount of distilled water was added to the others. After 72 hours in the dark, bacterial activity was measured in each of the bottles.

The study measured bacterial growth – by the increase in mass and bacterial growth efficiency – by the amount of carbon dioxide released during the growth process.

In the water containing plastic-derived carbon compounds, the bacteria had doubled in mass very effectively. About 50% of this carbon was incorporated into the bacteria in 72 hours.

Co-author Eleanor Sheridan, who undertook the work as part of a final year undergraduate project, said: “Our study shows that when carrier bags enter lakes and rivers, they can have dramatic and unexpected impacts on the entire ecosystem.”

She added: “I hope our results will encourage people to be even more careful about how they dispose of plastic waste.”

Produced in collaboration with SWNS.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.

Bryce K. Locke