Day 185: 2 Young Scientists break down plastics with bacteria

This is the week of inspirational teenagers on TED; this time, two try to find a means to breakdown plastic. Miranda Wang and Jenny Yao were in year 12 when they had a series of accidents in the science lab that revealed a compound which breaks down phthalates.
When plastics are mixed with organic matter and debris it’s impossible to pick them out. They cause serious problems, including the destruction of Ecosystems. According to experts, the ocean is a soup of plastic debris. It’s clear that cutting out plastics isn’t enough; we need to cut out the waste.
Phthalates are additives used in everyday plastic making which easily escape into the environment. We have high exposure to them in cosmetic, baby food products and they can be easily taken in through skin and inhaled. They’ve also been shown to cause cancer by acting as a hormone disruptant. Wang and Lao stumbled across the notion that bacteria living in areas could be used to break down phthalates, and presented their idea to a professor at the University of British Columbia.
Wang and Lao found the most successful cultures they tested came from cultures of an opposite contamination area; therefore they wondered if they could compare the degradation effects of bacteria by comparing different contamination areas; as well as what bacteria could break down phthalates. They identified one of three possible strains of bacteria, then extracted enzymes which reacted with an intermediate of phalate acid. Using such reactions, phthalates could be transformed into CO2, alcohol and water.
Breaking down plastics bio- synthetically seems the best solution to the growing problem of endangerment of habitats. With this in mind, the girls wish to go on to create nano- organisms which would break down a wide variety of contaminants.


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