African scientists say GMOs could help solve plastic pollution problem

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

December 10, 2018

African scientists are calling for investments in the application of biotechnology to deal with the world’s plastic pollution problem.

They are concerned that Africa has not explored the potential of biotechnology to help resolve the menace of plastic pollution and say there is an urgent need for it to be pursued.

“Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could be engineered to eat up these unwanted plastic wastes,” said Dr. Nii Korley Kortei, acting head of the department of nutrition and dietetics at University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ghana. “At the Kyoto University, a bacterium (Ideonella sakaiensis), has been discovered to produce a never-seen-before enzyme that can degrade plastics in few weeks.”

In a paper co-authored with Dr. Lydia Quansah of Ghana’s University of Development Studies and titled “Plastic waste management in Ghana,” the scientists noted: “This gene could be isolated and incorporated into fungi or bacteria of choice to salvage this menace through a comprehensive biotechnology programme. We strongly believe Ghanaian scientists can develop an antidote to this problem.”

Plastic pollution remains a big problem all over the world and particularly in Africa. A lot of plastics are used to convey items from the supermarket, and much of the food packaging is not biodegradable. It’s usually impossible to permanently dispose of these materials after use so they remain in the environment for a very long time, often as litter.

But Kortei argued that “genetically modified micro-organisms can be engineered to undertake the process of decomposition of these complex materials.”

The problem of plastic pollution is particularly dire when it comes to the ocean. According to Michael Balinga, a biodiversity conservation specialist at West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change, more than 300 million tonnes of plastics are produced globally every year. He says out of that number, only 22 percent is recycled and more than 8.8 million tonnes of plastics get dumped into the ocean annually.

“These plastics pose threats to creatures in the sea and about 700 marine animals face extinction due to the threat posed by plastics as a result of both ingestion and entanglement,” Balinga noted. “It is estimated 50 percent of sea turtles have plastics in their stomachs.”

A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the United Nations warned that by 2050, plastic waste will outweigh fish in the world’s oceans.

The plastic products sometimes remain in the systems of sea creatures that are eventually consumed by human beings, thereby introducing potentially toxic materials into their systems. The plastics in the ocean are also negatively impacting the fishing business, destroying the nets of fisherfolks and resulting in them catching less fish and more waste anytime they go to the sea. “The situation is alarming and is not only negatively impacting the quantity of fish we harvest but also the quality of fish we get. They are not healthy,” said Nii Ayi Bli, chief fisherman at James Town in Ghana.

Using genetic engineering to deal with plastics is one of the more efficient and ecofriendly approaches. Other methods, such as burning and burying plastics, are harmful to the environment. A number of genetic engineering tools have been confirmed as having the potential to deal with the problem.

In Israel, for example, researchers at the Ben Gurion University say they have found that the genetically modified versions of the bacteria Pseudomonas putida can eat polyethylene-terephthalate — one of the most common types of plastics. Scientists at the University of Porthsmouth in the United Kingdom also announced recently they have engineered the PETase enzyme to be able to digest some of the world’s most common plastics.

Kortei is urging governments in Ghana and elsewhere to invest in the use of such technologies and adopt best practices from around the world as possible means of dealing with the plastic pollution menace. “We can resort to this if we want to because the technology is there. We only need to learn from those who brought the technology and use it for our purpose,” he said.

A number of African countries have developed policies on how to combat waste pollution but most of them do not make provisions for genetic engineering. In Ghana, for example, a draft National Plastics Management Policy is currently being discussed for approval. Kortei said Ghana should be ready to tap into this potential.

“It involves the identification of desired genes. You know our microorganisms have diverse capabilities. If we are able to isolate such genes and insert them into a microorganism and insert it into a bacteria or fungi and employ them to take care of these plastic wastes on our refuse dumpsites, I believe they can degrade most of it and then we can be free from all these toxins,” he told the Alliance for Science.

Emmanuel Kyeremanteng Agyarko, chairman of Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Science and Technology, recently made a similar call at a forum to mark science day. He demanded the application of advanced science and technology to deal with waste. “Fifty percent of money for the District Assembly common fund goes into keeping the city clean. But still they cannot manage rubbish. Elsewhere, they are finding ways to deal with waste. It is not serendipity. It is science and technology. It is innovation. Let’s adopt it.”