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Shiv Nadar University Researchers Discover Plastic-Eating Bacteria

The bacteria initiate biodegradation of ‘Polystyrene’ – the key component of single-use plastic.

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Researchers at Shiv Nadar University (a comprehensive, multidisciplinary and research-focused university) announced the discovery of two strains of plastic-eating bacteria that have the potential to solve the problem of plastic waste globally. The bacterial species namely Exiguobacterium sibiricum strain DR11 and Exiguobacterium undae strain DR14 were isolated from the wetlands adjoining the University by Dr Richa Priyadarshini and her team at the Department of Life Sciences, School of Natural Sciences.

Further research by the team has revealed that these bacterial strains have the potential to decompose ‘polystyrene’ - a key component in Single-Use Plastic (SUP) items such as disposable cups, cutlery, toys, packaging materials, etc.

Commenting on the relevance of the discovery, Dr Rupamanjari Ghosh, Vice-Chancellor, Shiv Nadar University, shared, “What started as a scientific exploration of the wetland in our campus has led to this significant discovery of plastic-eating bacteria. I would like to congratulate our research team for their discovery, and look forward to them taking this forward to eventually addressing the problem of plastic pollution globally. This is a dream solution of breaking plastic in a natural process and making it biodegradable.” 

The research team identified that upon coming into contact with the plastic (polystyrene), the bacteria use it as a carbon source and create biofilms. This alters the physical properties of polystyrene and initiates a process of natural degradation with the release of hydrolysing enzymes to break the polymer chains. The team is currently trying to evaluate the metabolic processes of these strains for utilization in environmental bioremediation. 

The discovery assumes significance given the recent announcement by the Prime Minister to eliminate Single-Use Plastic by 2022. The plastic industry produces approximately 14 million metric tonnes of polystyrene, which is non-biodegradable. This effects both terrestrial and marine life, example, a plastic fork used for 15 minutes can take up to 450 years or more to decompose. In the universe of plastic items used daily, SUP constitutes about a fifth in volume, estimates the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association (AIPMA). India is practically drowning in plastic – according to industry estimates, India consumes an estimated 16.5 million tonnes of plastic annually. 

Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) conducted a study in 60 major cities of India in 2018 that observed that around 4059 tonnes of plastic waste is generated from these cities each day. In fact, India’s four metros generate over 1670 tonnes of plastic waste per day which is over 40% of the total plastic waste generated by the remaining 56 cities. With extrapolation of the plastic waste generation data from 60 major cities, it is estimated that around 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste is generated in India each day.

The research by Dr Priyadarshini and her team has been published in the prestigious scientific journal, RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry) Advances.



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