Pollution caused by plastics is a worldwide problem and bacteria from the stomach of cows could help alleviate it. Researchers in Austria have found that there are bacteria in the stomachs of cows that can break down plastics.

How did the discovery come about?

This new finding was published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. How did scientists actually come to this finding? Natural vegetable polyesters are found in the cow’s diet. The research team believed that there was a mechanism in the stomach that hydrolyzed the polyester – a reaction that breaks down these materials. The scientist wondered if, in addition to biological polyesters, they could tear artificial polyesters.

“A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals,” corresponding author Dr Doris Ribitsch, of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, said in a statement. “So we suspected that some biological activities could also be used for polyester hydrolysis.”

Rumen bacteria decompose various types of plastics

When the scientific team identified bacteria in the rumen of a cow, they began testing their ability to decompose PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Other types of plastics were also tested, namely polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and polyethylene furanoate (PEF). The plastic was changed to powder or plastic film and samples of these 3 plastics were placed in the rumen liquid. The results are astounding, all 3 types of plastics decomposed. The plastic powder decomposed the fastest. At first, only bacteria that decompose plastics were tested. However, when rumen fluid was used for the test, the decomposition was faster. Scientists explain this by the fact that other enzymes are present in the rumen and suitable conditions for plastics to decompose very quickly.

“Due to the large amount of rumen that accumulates every day in slaughterhouses, upscaling would be easy to imagine,” Dr Ribitsch explained.

Even though bacteria have been found that can break down plastics, this does not mean that it is a more efficient process than recycling. This discovery is only one of the first steps, not a comprehensive solution to the plastics problem. The research team will continue to research and look for ways to use microbial communities for ecology and industrial processes.