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University of Cambridge scientists say bacteria could be used to remove plastic pollution from lakes

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Bacteria that break down carbon compounds in plastic to use as food could be used as a natural way to remove pollution from the environment.

University of Cambridge scientists studied 29 lakes across Scandinavia and found some naturally-occurring lake bacteria grow faster and more efficiently on the remains of plastic bags than on natural matter like leaves and twigs.

Plastic pollution in a lake
Plastic pollution in a lake

The rate of bacterial growth more than doubled when plastic pollution raised the overall carbon level in lake water by just four per cent.

“It’s almost like the plastic pollution is getting the bacteria’s appetite going,“ said senior author Dr Andrew Tanentzap in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, “The bacteria use the plastic as food first, because it’s easy to break down, and then they’re more able to break down some of the more difficult food – the natural organic matter in the lake. This suggests that plastic pollution is stimulating the whole food web in lakes, because more bacteria means more food for the bigger organisms like ducks and fish.”

But the scientists warn that ongoing plastic pollution can have toxic effects on the environment.

Dr David Aldridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr David Aldridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Unfortunately, plastics will pollute our environment for decades. On the positive side, our study helps to identify microbes that could be harnessed to help break down plastic waste and better manage environmental pollution," said Professor David Aldridge from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who was involved in the study.

[Read more: Invasive species can leave lake ecosystems on brink of collapse, say University of Cambridge researchers]

Lakes with a wider variety of bacterial species were better at breaking down plastic pollution, the scientists found.

“Our study shows that when carrier bags enter lakes and rivers they can have dramatic and unexpected impacts on the entire ecosystem. Hopefully our results will encourage people to be even more careful about how they dispose of plastic waste,” added Eleanor Sheridan, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, who was first author of the study and undertook the work as part of a final-year undergraduate project.

The research, published in Nature Communications, was funded by the European Research Council.

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