Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao have identified a new bacteria that breaks down nasty compounds called phthalates, common to flexible plastics and linked to health problems. And they’re still teenagers.
After a visit to a plastic-filled waste transfer station last year, students Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao learned that much of the plastic in trash may not degrade for 5,000 years. Synthesized into plastics are phthalates, compounds that make shower curtain liners, food wraps and other products bendable but may also adversely impact human reproductive development and health. As plastics slowly break down, these phthalates would leach into the surrounding environment.
So, the two young scientists tackled the problem and ultimately discovered strains of bacteria that have the potential to naturally degrade phthalates. Their work earned a regional first place in British Columbia for the 2012 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada, as well as a special award for the most commercial potential at the contest’s finals.