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South Coast researcher leads effort to ease ocean pollution by using microbes to decompose plastics

Naja Bertolt Jensen
An estimated 80% of the pollution problem in the world's oceans is from plastics. A UC Santa Barbara researcher is leading a team looking at embedding microbes in plastics to help them decompose faster.

Scientists looking at embedding microbes in plastics which will eventually dissolve material after use.

Our beautiful oceans are facing a very ugly problem.

The world is producing about 300 million tons of plastics a year. Of that, an estimated 14 million tons is ending up in our oceans. And, experts say plastics make up about 80% of all ocean pollution.

"There are plastic materials that wouldn't degrade in the oceans over thousands of years," said UC Santa Barbara marine microbiologist Alyson Santoro.

She is leading a team of researchers looking at a novel solution: using nature to help create biodegradable plastics.

"There's actually bacteria that has evolved a way to break that down, and they naturally occur in the oceans," said Santoro. "What we're trying to do is figure out what things those microbes might need to help break down those plastics faster."

Santoro is a Marine Microbiologist in UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology.

The National Science Foundation has funded a project to start exploration of the concept.

The initial effort is looking at a specific type of plastics ocean pollution, which can be used to test the concept. They'll work with people who manufacture oceanographic sensors, devices used for things like monitoring ocean temperature. It's more expensive to go out and retrieve the sensors than to deploy new ones. Lots of them get deployed, but are never recovered.

Santoro hopes the initial research will help demonstrate the feasibility of the concept, and set the stage for expanded research.

The UCSB researcher feels there’s no question the concept will work, and can help ease the global ocean plastics pollution problem. She thinks the real questions are around developing a balance which allows the plastics to do their intended job without existing on for years, or even decades.

While it’s just research at this point, the team is hoping that what they are working on could help lead to solutions to a growing global pollution crisis.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.