SCOTTISH researchers have discovered proteins that are actively engaged in degrading plastic.

In a study being hailed as ground-breaking, scientists at the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences uncovered the crucial role of bacteria found living on plastic debris.

They found evidence that could determine the eventual degradation of plastics, which can currently take hundreds of years.

The university said the findings underscore the need for further research to determine the function of micro-organisms colonising marine plastic pollution across larger geographic areas.

The research also identified rare and understudied bacteria that could assist in plastic biodegradation, offering new insights for tackling plastic pollution.

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Alongside experts at the University of Mons in Belgium, they analysed the proteins in plastic samples taken from Gullane beach in East Lothian.

The research, led by Sabine Matallana-Surget, took a unique approach by analysing the proteins expressed by active micro-organisms.

Dr Matallana-Surget said: “Plastic pollution has reached critical levels in the marine environment, with trillions of individual plastic pieces estimated to be distributed throughout the world’s oceans.

“This plastic causes significant ecological and socioeconomic disruption as it accumulates in oceanic gyres, coastal habitats, and is ingested by fish, sea birds, and marine mammals.

“Micro-organisms rapidly colonise the surface of plastic pollution when it enters the environment, and their complex ecological interactions can shape the fate of plastic in marine systems.

“Understanding the function and ecology of micro-organisms colonising plastic pollution is therefore vital to adequately assess the risks of marine plastic pollution and to pave the way for biodiscovery beyond plastic biodegradation.

“Our study addresses a critical gap in our understanding of the ecological roles of the micro-organisms colonising marine plastic pollution.

“Few studies have determined which metabolic pathways are expressed by these micro-organisms, especially within colder climates.

“Our approach used state-of-the-art comparative metaproteomics and multi-omics to resolve not only which micro-organisms were present on marine plastic pollution, but also which micro-organisms were active.

“This is important because some micro-organisms colonising plastic pollution are known to degrade hydrocarbons and other pollutants.”