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As tourists gathered on a cool June morning to view some of Yellowstone National Park's most iconic geysers, Montana State University researchers took to the boardwalks for another purpose: to collect trash that could lead to new ways of recycling plastic.
Steam from nearby Old Faithful billowed in the breeze as the researchers shuffled past geyser-gazers, fixing their attention instead on the shallow, orange-tinted waters surrounding the thermal features.
Water - Lid - Megan - Udeck - Junior
"There's a bottled water lid!" exclaimed Megan Udeck, a junior from Missoula who is majoring in biotechnology at MSU.
That cued Russell Bair, one of two park rangers accompanying the crew, to extend his trash-picker and pluck the small cap from the mineral-encrusted rivulet. Udeck and two other students waited with rubber-gloved hands to receive the quarry.
Trash - Springs - Medium - Microbes - Plastics
"The trash in these springs could be a natural medium for microbes that could break down plastics," explained trip leader Dana Skorupa, an assistant research professor in MSU's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Moreover, she said, because the organisms live in near-boiling water, it means they likely can withstand the heat that helps plastics soften and become easier to break down.
Recently, when Skorupa and other researchers in MSU's Thermal Biology Institute and Center for Biofilm Engineering collected water samples from Yellowstone hot springs and inserted small pieces of certain plastics back in the lab, they observed microbes colonizing the material. The team's Yellowstone foray in June marked their first attempt to collect additional microbes that may already be thriving on various plastics, and then further cultivate them in the lab, Skorupa said.
Project - Investigator - Director - MSU - Thermal
The project's principal investigator and director of MSU's Thermal Biology Institute, Brent Peyton, is optimistic that they might find microbes that could naturally break down plastics into their raw ingredients, which could then be used to make other plastic products.
"There's a huge diversity of organisms in...
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