Plastic-munching bacteria isolated by high school student

Isn’t it nice when reality follows a TOG discussion on plastic bioremediation? A high school student in Canada may have isolated microbes that degrade plastic bags. As far as I can tell from the not-so-coherent news article, Daniel Burd created a bacteria-friendly environment (warm, wet, and nutritious) and seeded it with ground-up plastic bags. He then isolated plastic-eating strains and cultured them together with plastic. The most successful strain reduced the plastic’s mass by 32%.

Of course (assuming Burd’s results are reproducible), there is a ways to go before we can have giant vats of plastic-munching bacteria. Bacteria that can easily be grown in small, liter-sized cultures are often difficult to grow on industrial scales, and some bacteria can produce nasty byproducts (like methyl iodide, a greenhouse gas). It’s impossible to assess Burd’s results based on a news article – maybe he’ll continue his hot streak and publish in peer-reviewed journal. Still, plastic eating bacteria! From a high school student! Very promising, indeed.

Thanks to Sam for the link.


29 Responses to Plastic-munching bacteria isolated by high school student

  1. Eric says:

    Sounds promising!
    Hopefully the bacteria has a strong taste for #3-## which so many recycling programs refuse to accept, yet which so many packagers are using.

    Gotta love those high school projects!
    I’ve got one I posting as soon as the journal paper is released with a high schooler as one of the authors.

  2. Eric – I was under the impression that most recycling programs only accept 1 and 2. So everything 3 and up would need to be munchable. (unless that it what you typed and it got horribly mangled.) Very neat to be publishing with a high school student!

  3. Shruti Chakravarty says:

    An excellent idea, this is!
    It will surely give Mother Earth some hope to survive longer in the future. Since the maintaining costs are low, hope, even the smallest country tries to implement this method.
    Burd is a GENIUS!!

  4. This is very compelling. We manufacture various plastics and to know that people are working on a bacteria that can decompose the plastics makes me feel better about my job.

    Obviously, plastics play an important role in our society and offer a great deal of benefits. Learning that someone as young as a high school student is working to provide new solutions for how we deal with the byproducts of the plastic industry is fantastic!

  5. Also,

    I’m just curious. Do you have any good links to read about why it is difficult to grow bacteria on a massive scale? That seems to be the biggest issue for these types of solutions.

    As a manufacturer of plastics, we try to stay abreast of the latest technologies for not just making the plastic materials, but also how to deal with them after they have served in their application.

    Would his solution work with Melamine and Phenolic? Those are two materials we do a lot of work with.


  6. Emily says:

    This is also promising…
    A Review of Plastic Waste Biodegradation
    Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, 25:243–250, 2005
    Copyright c Taylor & Francis Inc.
    ISSN: 0738-8551 print / 1549-7801 online
    DOI: 10.1080/07388550500346359


    Implication of Arthrobacter and Enterobacter species for polycarbonate degradation
    Reeta Goela,, M.G.H. Zaidib, Ravindra Sonia, Kusum Lataa, Yogesh S. Shouchec 2007

    I suppose the issue is not so much isolating the bacteria (a high school student could do it!) as it is creating an environment that will allow them to degrade the wide variety of plastics that exist. It’s an awfully complex problem.

  7. Banwari says:

    Really this is great opportunity for every people because plastic cause many of problem.I want to introduce with my self because am also collect
    research papers about it i want create a noble microorganism which is highly degradable of plastic.
    Hope so you will provide some of clue regards to this topic.

  8. Boggan says:

    This phenomena was discovered back in 2001 in australia by dr Philipa Ewans, queensland university. She found bacteria deep down in the earths crust, 2.5 to 5 miles down. It should be said however that since the smallest bacteria was only 20 nanometers in size and the largest up to 200+ nanometers. (She named them “nanobs”) They found however that after they had cultured the bactería that when put in a styrofoam petriedish without any other media, they ate clean through the dish. Just thought id mention it, i mean if someone way back then found plastic eating bacteria, why all the hype about this kids “discovery”? clearly it has already been proved that bacteria eat plastic. The controversy around her finding was not about their plastic eating properties however, it was the claim that they contained dna and that their size wouldnt allow for life to exist. I dont know where her reserach took her, havent really bothered to find out, but it would be cool if she proved it was alive however, it would bring credence to the research done over the mars rock that they say contained fosilized bacteria that was about the same sizerange as philipas plast eating nanobs. If someone has more information about the nanobs id like to know, if so life has been found to exist in around the 20 nanometer scale! Greetings from sweden.

  9. Boggan says:

    Dr. Philippa Uwins is the correct spelling of her name and the correct spelling is “nanobes”. Sorry for the crappy spelling, its 5.19 in the morning at the moment here in sweden and im a bit sleepy. More information can be found at

    Although almost nothing is mentioned about their plastic eating properties, there is a documentary about her efforts and struggle to gain acceptance in the scientific community, in wich the nanobes plastic eating abilities are shown and explained. However not in very great detail im afraid, more information is needed.

    I hope this information was useful to someone, i made this comment largely because i am bored and cannot sleep :).

    If someone has more information about this phenomena id really like to know, so please post replies if you know anything. Everyone have a nice summer, im off to bed. /Boggan

  10. It’s truly very complicated in this active life to listen news on TV, thus I only use internet for that reason, and take the most recent news.

  11. I guess depends on plastic type too?

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