Although microplastics are incredibly tiny in size (smaller than 5mm), they pose a huge threat to marine environments, and because of their minuscule size, they are also incredibly difficult to remove from water. Fortunately, a team of microbiologists has developed a sustainable solution that could help remove these pesky tiny pollutants from the environment — with the help of bacteria.
Coming from researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), the solution was inspired by bacteria’s natural inclination to group together and stick to surfaces, creating an adhesive substance called “biofilm”. Tapping into this sticky bacteria property, the team envisioned creating tape-like microbe nets that can capture microplastics in polluted water to form an easily recyclable blob.
“It is imperative to develop effective solutions that trap, collect, and even recycle these microplastics to stop the ‘plastification’ of our natural environments,” said Sylvia Lang Liu, a microbiologist at PolyU and lead researcher on the project.
As reported by the Guardian, Liu’s team has engineered a bacterial biofilm, from a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, that traps and groups rogue microplastics floating in the water and makes them sink to the bottom of the water. Then, thanks to a “capture-release mechanism” using a biofilm-dispersal gene, the researchers can unlatch the microplastics from the bacteria traps, resulting in bulks of collected microplastics ready for recycling.
Although the project is still in its preliminary phase and more research is needed to see if the solution could be implemented on a large scale, this bacteria-based invention has real potential to help cut plastic pollution using something found in nature.