Scientists Discover Bacteria That Can "Eat" Plastic

Chomp on this. recycleharmony/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The world churns out 311 million tonnes (343 million tons) of plastic every year. By 2050, plastic waste in the the oceans is expected to outweigh fish. About a sixth of that trash is made of a highly durable plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

But while this is certainly not good for the planet and its creatures, nature finds a way: Researchers have found a bacteria that has developed a surprising appetite for this tricky polymer.

The bacteria, named Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, has the ability to break down a thin film of PET within just six weeks at a temperature of 86ºF (30ºC). Using two different enzymes, the bacteria breaks down the PET into terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, two chemicals that are harmless to the environment.

The research team from Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University discovered the bacteria after collecting 250 samples of PET debris from sediment, soil and wastewater from a plastic bottle recycling site. The findings are published in the journal Science.

Interestingly, the researchers believe that the bacteria’s enzymes might be a fairly recent evolutionary development, as these types of plastics were only invented 70 years ago.

It’s certainly exciting news. However, many scientists are skeptical about how practical this bacteria could be in addressing the globe’s plastics problem.

Tracy Mincer, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said in a statement: "When I think it through, I don't really know where [this discovery] gets us. I don't see how microbes degrading plastics is any better than putting plastic bottles in a recycling bin so they can be melted down to make new ones."

However, he remained optimistic that this discovery could pave the way for the identification of more bacteria that have developed an ability to break down plastics and other pollutants.

Mincer concluded: “This process could be quite common. Now that we know what we are looking for, we may see these microbes in many areas around the world."

Main image credit: recycleharmony/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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