Researchers discover plastic-eating bacteria

Brittany A. Roston - Mar 11, 2016
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Researchers discover plastic-eating bacteria

Plastic waste floats around the ocean as massive islands of garbage, it kills wildlife and destroys environments. Scientists have been scrambling for a solution to the growing problem, and now a team of Japanese researchers may have found a solution: plastic-eating bacteria. The researchers discovered a type of bacteria that feeds on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, one of the most commonly used varieties around the globe.

The research involved manually sorting through massive troves of plastic samples in search of bacteria that was feeding on the substance. Once discovered, the researchers analyzed the bacteria and discovered it degrades poor quality PET plastic in about a month and a half, must faster than the plastics would break down on their own when exposed to the elements.

This isn’t the first organism discovered that eats PET, but it is the best at what it does (so far). The may be due to an evolution in favor of digesting plastic — the bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, was genetically analyzed and found to have enzymes that have evolved specifically for breaking down PET plastic waste.

This is the latest example of rapid evolution at work (something also observed in farm-raised trout), and could also one day lead to a contained solution for plastic waste. The type of PET used in an ordinary bottle, though, takes longer for the bacteria to eat than low-quality PET. In the future, a more robust type of bacteria could be sprayed on plastic waste, dissolving it rapidly.

Said study author Professor Kenji Miyamoto:

It’s difficult to break down highly crystallized PET. Our research results are just the initiation for the application. We have to work on so many issues needed for various applications. It takes a long time.

VIA: The Guardian