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Understanding Plastics as Carriers for Microbial Communities

Grace Wade | July 9, 2019
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Approximately eight million metric tons of plastic pollution enter the ocean each year. That means that by 2050, the amount of plastic is expected to exceed fish in the ocean by mass. Oceans are not the only waterways impacted by plastic pollution though. Plastics of all kinds are regularly turning up in our lakes, streams, and even the water we drink. These plastics have an enormous influence on water quality, and researchers are increasingly seeking potential solutions related to their removal and biodegradation. One such researcher is George Wells, an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University.

"My lab focuses on environmental biotechnology and microbial ecology," explains Wells, who has been with Northwestern for five years. "Basically, that means we put microbial communities to work to clean water, produce energy, and recover resources from urban waste flows, and we work to understand the structure of the underlying communities both in engineered systems like bioreactors and water treatment processes, and in impacted natural aquatic environments."

Wells is one of the collaborators for the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern’s (ISEN) latest initiative, the Program on Plastics, Ecosystems, and Public Health. The Program aims to address and find scalable solutions to the problem of global use and accumulation of plastics.

To tackle the plastics problem, the Program takes a multidisciplinary approach, focusing on three intersecting research areas: material and product innovation; air, land, and water ecosystem dynamics; and public health impacts. Unique in its structure, the Program operates as a collaborative team science network, bringing together experts from across Northwestern as well as from academic, civic, government, and industrial partnerships.

The microbial communities that Wells and his team study consist of microbes, or single-celled organisms such as bacteria and archaea that surround us at all times. These organisms and the communities they form drive many of the biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem functions that we, as well as the environment, rely on.

"Anytime you have plastic that is released in tiny bits to a river or lake, you have microbial communities that colonize this plastic," explains Wells. "We are trying to understand what are these microbial communities. Are they potentially beneficial? Are they degrading plastics? Or are they potential vectors for pathogens or chemicals? Can we take advantage of these microbial communities to design engineered bioprocesses to enhance degradation and prevent release of waste plastic to the environment?"

Wells sees ISEN’s latest program as a means to connect with other researchers, as well as companies, seeking to redesign plastics to be biodegradable. The Program also opens a dialogue about plastics not just across Northwestern’s campus and the nation, but globally.

"ISEN is trying to establish partnerships with not just research organizations or governmental organizations, but also with companies that are actively interested in addressing the problem," says Wells.