In a recent study, a group of microbes were discovered in the rumen from cows that can break down certain plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in water bottles, pack foods, etc. A rumen is a part of the stomach of animals like cattle that aid in digesting complex food items like fibres, including collagen present in the grass peels of fruits and vegetables. The herbivorous diets cows consume are rich in cutin, found as waxy layers visible on many plant-based products. These animals called the ruminants, make the use of microorganisms to achieve this feat. The researchers argued that because these microorganisms can digest complex polyesters found in cutin, they can also break down other synthetic substances containing such components. PET possesses a closely similar structure as that of cutin, and thus these microbes found in ruminants can potentially also degrade plastics.
In this study by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences of Vienna in Austria, the scientists discovered that these rumen microbes could also digest other plastics like polybutylene adipate terephthalate and polyethene furoate in addition to PET. These two plastics are used to develop renewable plastic carry bags. They concluded this by exposing the rumen liquid to all three plastics and discovered that the rumen liquid containing the microbes could successfully digest all three kinds of plastics. Furthermore, these microorganisms were found to belong to the genus Pseudomonas and Acinetobacter. Several studies have shown similar results where these species could break down plastics. This study thus has opened doors to possibilities to develop cheaper alternatives to dispose of plastics and help in environmental conservation.