According to CNN, scientists in Japan have discovered a strain of bacteria that can eat plastic, a finding that might help solve the world’s fast-growing plastic pollution problem.
The fear of having more plastic in the ocean than fishes seem to have been averted with this discovery by a team at Kyoto University who found the plastic munching microbe, by rummaging around in piles of waste.
After five years of searching through 250 samples, they isolated a bacteria that could live on poly (ethylene terephthalate) (PET), the type often used to package bottled drinks, cosmetics and household cleaners. They named the new species of bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis.
This could be really good news for the environment. Almost a third of all plastic packaging escapes collection systems and ends up in nature or in clogging up infrastructure, the World Economic Forum (WEF) warned. Their report based on analysis of 20 studies and interviews with 180 experts, said only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling and that there will be more plastic than fish calculated by weight in the world’s oceans by 2050.
How Ideonella Sakaiensis Consumes Plastic Bottles
According to descriptions on Science Alert, the first discovery of plastic bottle eating bacteria was of tricky-to-cultivate fungi, whereas, in this case the microbe is easily grown.
The researchers more or less left the PET in a warm jar with the bacterial culture and some other nutrients, and a few weeks later all the plastic was gone.
Then came the real innovation, where the team identified the enzymes that Ideonella sakaiensis uses to breakdown the PET. All living things contain enzymes that they use to speed up necessary chemical reactions. Some enzymes help digest our food, dismantling it into useful building blocks. Without the necessary enzymes the body can’t access certain sources of food. Ideonella sakaiensis seems to have evolved an efficient enzyme that the bacteria produces when it is in an environment that is rich in PET.
The Kyoto researchers identified the gene in the bacteria’s DNA that is responsible for the PET-digesting enzyme. They then were able to manufacture more of the enzyme and then demonstrate that PET could be broken down with the enzyme alone.
The Bacteria’s Benefits To Plastic Bottles Recycling
This opens a whole new approach to plastic recycling and decontamination since most plastic bottles are not truly recycled presently. Instead they are melted and reformed into other hard plastic products. Packaging companies typically prefer freshly made ‘virgin’ plastics that are created from chemical starting materials that are usually derived from oil. Now the PET-digesting enzymes could be added to vats of waste, breaking all the bottles or other plastic items down into easy-to-handle chemicals. These could then be used to make fresh plastics, producing a true recycling system.