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Abstract

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1.Introduction
With the advances in technology and the increase in the global population, plastic materials
have found wide applications in every aspect of life and industries. However, most
conventional plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, poly(vinyl chloride)
and poly(ethylene terephthalate), are non biodegradable, and their increasing accumulation in
the environment has been a threat to the planet. To overcome all these problems, some steps
have been undertaken. The first strategy involved production of plastics with high degree of
degradability.
The word bio-plastic is used confusingly. In our understanding, however, bio-plastics
consist of either biodegradable plastics (i.e., plastics produced from fossil materials) or biobased plastics (i.e., plastics synthesized from biomass or renewable resources). The interrelationship between biodegradable plastics and bio-based plastics is shown in Figure 1.
Polycaprolactone (PCL), and poly(butylene succinate) (PBS) are petroleum based, but they
can be degraded by microorganisms. On the other hand, poly(hydroxybutyrate) (PHB),
poly(lactide) (PLA) and starch blends are produced from biomass or renewable resources,
and are thus biodegradable. Despite the fact that polyethylene (PE) and Nylon 11 (NY11) can
be produced from biomass or renewable resources, they are non-biodegradable. Acetyl
cellulose (AcC) is either biodegradable or non-biodegradable, depending on the degree of
acetylation. AcCs with a low acetylation can be degraded, while those with high substitution
ratios are non-biodegradable.

Figure 1.
Bio-plastics comprised of biodegradable plastics and bio-based plastics.
Biodegradable plastics are seen by many as a promising solution to this problem because they
are environmentally-friendly. They can be derived from renewable feedstocks, thereby
reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and lactic
acid (raw materials for PLA) can be produced by fermentative biotechnological processes
using agricultural products and microorganisms [13]. Biodegradable plastics offer a lot of
advantages such as increased soil fertility, low accumulation of bulky plastic materials in the
environment (which invariably will minimize injuries to wild animals), and reduction in the
cost of waste management. Furthermore, biodegradable plastics can be recycled to useful
metabolites (monomers and oligomers) by microorganisms and enzymes. A second strategy
involves degradation of some petroleum-derived plastics by biological processes. A typical
example can be seen in the case of some aliphatic polyesters such as PCL and PBS that can

be degraded with enzymes and microorganisms [46]. Studies have also shown that
polycarbonates (particularly the aliphatic types) possess some degree of biodegradability [7].
Thirdly, bold attempts are being made to recycle non-biodegradable plastics. For instance,
polystyrene (used in making some disposable spoons, plates, cups and some packaging
materials) can be recycled and used as filler for other plastics.
Prior to the widespread applications of biodegradable plastics, it is important to evaluate and
understand the mechanisms involved and the microorganisms that are associated with
biodegradation. Regarding microbial and enzymatic degradation of plastics, we will discuss
them from two sides: one aspect is based on microbial (enzyme) characteristics and the other
is on characteristics of the plastics. Microbial (enzyme) characteristics imply distribution and
kinds of microorganisms, as well as their growth conditions (such as, pH, temperature,
moisture content, oxygen, nutrients, etc.), and types of enzymes (intracellular and
extracellular enzyme, exo- or endo- cleavage types). An interesting question is, what are the
characteristics of plastics that can effectively promote the biodegradability of plastics?
Usually our main focus has been on the chemical structure of polymers with respect to the
biodegradability of water-soluble polymeric materials.
When the biodegradability of solid polymers is assessed, aside from their chemical
properties, we should also note their physical properties as polymer aggregates. In other
words, we should consider not only the first order structures but also the high-order structures
of polymers that play an important role in the biodegradation process. Furthermore, it is
worth mention that surface conditions (surface area, hydrophilic, hydrophobic properties) of
plastics also generally influence the biodegradation mechanism of plastics. In this review, we
will be discuss the biodegradation of plastics by both microbial and enzymatic processes and
several factors that govern their biodegradability.
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2.Biodiversity and Occurrence of Polymer-Degrading


Microorganisms
Biodiversity and occurrence of polymer-degrading microorganisms vary depending on the
environment, such as soil, sea, compost, activated sludge, etc. It is necessary to investigate
the distribution and population of polymer-degrading microorganisms in various ecosystems.
Generally, the adherence of microorganisms on the surface of plastics followed by the
colonization of the exposed surface is the major mechanisms involved in the microbial
degradation of plastics. The enzymatic degradation of plastics by hydrolysis is a two-step
process: first, the enzyme binds to the polymer substrate then subsequently catalyzes a
hydrolytic cleavage. Polymers are degraded into low molecular weight oligomers, dimers and
monomers and finally mineralized to CO2 and H2O.
The clear zone method with agar plates is a widely used technique for screening polymer
degraders and for assessment of the degradation potential of different microorganisms

towards a polymer. Agar plates containing emulsified polymers are inoculated with
microorganisms and the presence of polymer degrading microorganisms can be confirmed by
the formation of clear halo zones around the colonies. This happens when the polymerdegrading microorganisms excrete extracellular enzymes which diffuse through the agar and
degrade the polymer into water soluble materials. Using this technique, it was confirmed that
PHB, polypropiolactone (PPL) and PCL degraders are widely distributed in different
environments [810]. Majority of the strains that are able to degrade PHB belong to different
taxa such as Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, Streptomyces and fungi [9]. It has
been reported that 39 bacterial strains of the classes Firmicutes and Proteobacteria can
degrade PHB, PCL, and PBS, but not PLA [10]. Only a few PLA degrading microorganisms
have been isolated and identified. The population of aliphatic polymer-degrading
microorganisms in different ecosystems was found to be in the following order: PHB = PCL
> PBS > PLA [8,11].

We manufacture over 300 million tonnes of plastics each year for use in
everything from packaging to clothing. Their resilience is great when you
want a product to last. But once discarded, plastics linger in the
environment, littering streets, fields and oceans alike. Every corner of our
planet has been blighted by our addiction to plastic. But now we may have
some help to clean up the mess in the form of bacteria that have been
found slowly munching away on discarded bottles in the sludge of a
recycling centre.
Plastics are polymers, long thin molecules made of repeating (monomer)
building blocks. These are cross-linked to one another to build a durable,
malleable mesh. Most plastics are made from carbon-based monomers, so
in theory they are a good source of food for microorganisms.
But unlike natural polymers (such as cellulose in plants) plastics arent
generally biodegradable. Bacteria and fungi co-evolved with natural
materials, all the while coming up with new biochemical methods to
harness the resources from dead matter.
But plastics have only been around for about 70 years. So microorganisms
simply havent had much time to evolve the necessary biochemical tool kit
to latch onto the plastic fibres, break them up into the constituent parts and
then utilise the resulting chemicals as a source of energy and carbon that
they need to grow.

Now a team at Kyoto University has, by rummaging around in piles of


waste, found a plastic munching microbe. After five years of searching
through 250 samples, they isolated a bacteria that could live
on poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET), a common plastic used in bottles
and clothing. They named the new species of bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis.
You may think this is the rerun of an old story, as plastic-eating microbes
have already been touted as saviours of the planet. But there are several
important differences here.
First, previous reports were of tricky-to-cultivate fungi, where in this case
the microbe is easily grown. The researchers more or less left the PET in a
warm jar with the bacterial culture and some other nutrients, and a few
weeks later all the plastic was gone.

Bottle breakdown. Illustration: P. Huey. Reprinted with permission from U.T. Bornscheuer, Science 351:1154 (2016)

Second - and the real innovation - is that the team has identified the
enzymes that Ideonella sakaiensis uses to breakdown the PET. All living
things contain enzymes that they use to speed up necessary chemical
reactions. Some enzymes help digest our food, dismantling it into useful
building blocks. Without the necessary enzymes the body cant access
certain sources of food.
For example, people who are lactose intolerant dont have the enzyme that
breaks down the lactose sugar found in dairy produce. And no human can
digest cellulose, while some microbes can. Ideonella sakaiensis seems to
have evolved an efficient enzyme that the bacteria produces when it is in an
environment that is rich in PET.
The Kyoto researchers identified the gene in the bacterias DNA that is
responsible for the PET-digesting enzyme. They then were able to

manufacture more of the enzyme and then demonstrate that PET could be
broken down with the enzyme alone.

First real recycling


This opens a whole new approach to plastic recycling and decontamination.
At present, most plastic bottles are not truly recycled. Instead they are
melted and reformed into other hard plastic products. Packaging
companies typically preferfreshly made 'virgin' plastics that are created from
chemical starting materials that are usually derived from oil.
The PET-digesting enzymes offer a way to truly recycle plastic. They could
be added to vats of waste, breaking all the bottles or other plastic items
down into into easy-to-handle chemicals. These could then be used to
make fresh plastics, producing a true recycling system.
Manufactured enzymes are already used to great effect in a wide range of
everyday items. Biological washing powders contain enzymes that digest
fatty stains. The enzymes known as rennet that are used to harden cheese
once came from calfs intestines but are now manufactured
using genetically engineered bacteria. Maybe we can now use a similar
manufacturing method to clean up our mess.