In a groundbreaking development, scientists have genetically modified a marine microorganism with the capability to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic in saltwater environments. PET is widely used in products such as water bottles and clothing and is a major contributor to micro plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
SOLUTION TO PLASTIC POLLUTION CHALLENGES
Nathan Crook, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University, emphasized the urgency of addressing plastic pollution in marine environments. While one option is to remove plastic from the water and place it in landfills, this approach comes with its own set of challenges. A more sustainable solution involves breaking down plastic into reusable products, and the genetic modification of marine microorganisms represents a significant step in this direction.
GENETIC APPROACH TO PLASTIC DEGRADATION
To tackle this challenge, researchers harnessed the potential of two bacterial species: Vibrio natriegens and Ideonella sakaiensis. V. natriegens, which thrives in saltwater, boasts rapid reproduction capabilities. I. sakaiensis, on the other hand, produces enzymes that enable it to degrade PET plastic. Scientists extracted the genetic sequence responsible for these enzymes in I. sakaiensis and incorporated it into a plasmid – a replicating genetic sequence. This plasmid was then introduced into V. natriegens, prompting the production of plastic-degrading enzymes on the surface of its cells.
A SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGH
The significance of this achievement is twofold. Firstly, it marks the first time V. natriegens has been successfully engineered to express foreign enzymes on its cell surface. Secondly, it is the first genetically modified organism known to break down PET micro plastics in a saltwater environment, a crucial development since removing plastics from the ocean and eliminating high salt concentrations prior to degradation processes is economically unfeasible.
OVERCOMING REMAINING CHALLENGES
Despite this breakthrough, three substantial challenges lie ahead. The researchers aim to directly integrate I. sakaiensis DNA into the V. natriegens genome for more stable enzyme production. They also seek to modify V. natriegens to consume the by-products of PET breakdown and produce valuable end products for various industries.