Plastic-eating bacteria

In 2016, Japanese scientists discovered a new and unique type of bacteria outside a recycling factory in Sakai. It can eat plastic.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I don’t know about you, but when I picture this bottle recycling plant I see a bunch of radiation-suited scientists scooping bright green muck out of the mud. I’m sure the actual event was much more prosaic. Still, what Kohei Oda, Kenji Miyamoto, and their team found was impressive.

Polyethylene terephthalate – commonly known as polyester (when used for clothing and textiles) or PET (when used for drink bottles) – is one of the four major plastics polluting our world. It has been around since 1941, which is no time at all on an evolutionary scale. Nevertheless, what those researchers found in the muck is a bacteria that can effectively break down and consume PET.

Ideonella sakaiensis (named, in part, for the factory in Sakai where it was discovered) is that bacteria. It probably evolved in response to runoff from the recycling facility. Essentially, it creates an enzyme to break the plastic down into two components, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, and then consumes those components as food.

Could this be used to solve our plastic pollution problem? Maybe. The bacteria work best in relatively high temperatures (30°C and above) and take a long time to do their magic, so current research aims to engineer them to work better and faster.

[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic.]

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