Using cows to end plastic pollution.

Inverse considers the environmental power of the cow, whose immense domestic population increases greenhouse gases (pardon me), but could also, new research proposes, be harnessed to literally digest plastic waste, breaking it down to biodegradable materials:

“A huge microbial community lives in the rumen reticulum and is responsible for the digestion of food in the animals,” Doris Ribitsch, a co-author on the study from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna said in a press statement.

In one particularly large chamber of the cow stomach, known as the rumen, bacteria digest plant cellulose from the grass and feed that the cow eats.

The researchers speculate that because the cow’s gut breaks down natural plant polyesters, the rumen flora could probably do the same for polyesters found in plastic materials.

From a cattle slaughterhouse in Austria, researchers received a liquid slurry of rumen microbes. The scientists then incubated the liquid with a form of each of the plastics — either plastic powder or plastic film.

This method allowed the researchers to see how well the rumen chemistry broke down each of the plastics.

Finally, the researchers sequenced and analyzed the DNA of the liquid to understand the specific microorganisms that made up the cow rumen flora. Around 98 percent of the microbes were bacteria, with other microorganisms like archaea and viruses making up the rest.

You can read the cow-gut-microbe research here, in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.