Before we go any further, let us say that the answer is most probably NO (at least not all by themselves). But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue extremophile research and commercialization to try and alleviate some of the problems facing our planet. The truth is that we will need to implement an “all of the above” approach to help put our planet back on track and address issues like global warming, pollution, and other environmental problems in our future.
In this article we would like to take a closer look at the fascinating world of microorganisms that like to consume petroleum products and ponder this article’s title. Let’s start with a brief recap of what exactly are extremophiles and what makes them a potential ally of the green movement.
Scientists first became aware of microbial life that has great flexibility for surviving in extreme environments – ones that would be inhospitable to complex organisms due their acidity, extreme temperatures or air pressure levels, as well as areas where no typical inputs for fueling life exist. The interesting fact about these extremophiles is that some of these bacteria eat petroleum as a source of carbon, nutrients and energy.
Extremophiles as Nature’s Clean Up Crew
Two recent articles give us hope that there is great potential to utilize extremophiles to tackle petroleum-based pollution, including our own textile industry’s microplastic problem.
The first, titled Going to extremes to tackle oil contamination, follows the research of Júnia Schultz who studies the microbiomes of extreme environments around the world. It focuses on a specific discovery of bacterium she discovered in an antarctic volcano. The researchers found that not only could these bacteria survive and thrive in such extreme conditions, they also found that a good portion of these bacteria were very effective at biodegrading oil pollution.
The researchers have analyzed the genetic makeup of these organisms in the hopes that they can find similar bacteria in other areas of the world. The next step will be introducing the right bacteria into contaminated areas to help try and bring those ecosystems back to health.
The second article is more relevant to the textile industry and one of its most troubling externality, that of releasing microplastics into our waterways. The piece discussed how scientists have found enzymes that can break down plastics which is already a huge positive. The real cool twist to the story was that these scientists were then able to engineer enzymes that could break the plastic at a faster rate. This micro-bug engineering was able to increase the rate of plastic breakdown sixfold by 2020 from its initial discovery in 2016.
At Enviro Thread we’re always looking for stories that offer a ray of hope and these two pieces are certainly promising, but we cannot rely on extremophiles alone. We must look at ways to improve our entire ecosystem, from processing techniques like our very own NTX Cooltrans, to innovative ways to create fabrics.
Don’t Bet the Future on Extremophiles Alone
In the spirit of promoting low carbon textile solutions, we want to give a shout out to a few companies that have made great strides in moving our industry towards a more sustainable future.
Far Eastern New Century – one of the global leaders in recycled polyester research and currently world’s second largest supplier of recycled polyester. The company has also developed ocean recycled yarn and eco-friendly elastic polyester fiber TOPGREEN®.
LanzaTech – has developed a method to produce ethanol from waste carbon sources and is working with textile industry partners to convert the ethanol to polyester. Essentially converting pollution into valuable raw materials is a win all around.
Genomatica – focuses on developing higher-performance key ingredients for everyday products, using plants and waste rather than fossil fuels or other non-sustainable sources like palm oil. The company has already commercialized products to make better plastics, spandex and is working on nylon.
Bolt Threads – the makers of Mylo, have engineered a process to grow mycelium (a type of mushroom) in a vertical farming facility powered by 100% renewable energy and transformed it into a material that looks and feels like animal leather. Cruelty-free and eco-friendly leather for the win.
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