Environment

The hungry little bacterium that could hold the key to the world's plastic waste problem

The hungry little bacterium th...
The discovery of a bacterium with the ability to completely break down PET plastic could be a boon for cleaning up plastic waste
The discovery of a bacterium with the ability to completely break down PET plastic could be a boon for cleaning up plastic waste
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The discovery of a bacterium with the ability to completely break down PET plastic could be a boon for cleaning up plastic waste
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The discovery of a bacterium with the ability to completely break down PET plastic could be a boon for cleaning up plastic waste

Hundreds of millions of tons of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic are produced each year to package everything from sodas to shampoo. That only a fraction of this is recycled leaves much of it to rest in landfills and the ocean. But efforts to deal with this monumental mess may soon receive a much-needed boost, with scientists in Japan discovering a new bacterium with the ability to completely break down PET plastics in a relatively short space of time.

A team led by Dr Shosuke Yoshida from the Kyoto Institute of Technology unearthed the bacterium, quite literally, by scooping up 250 debris samples from outside a PET recycling plant. Among the soil, sludge and other sediments, they discovered a bacterium that was actually feeding on PET as its energy and carbon source. When it was left alone in a jar with PET plastic, the scientists found that the material was completely broken down within a matter of weeks.

At the heart of this healthy appetite for plastic were a pair of enzymes, which the microbe appears to have evolved in response to its PET-heavy environment. These enable the bacterium, which has been named Ideonella sakaiensis, to reduce the plastic down to its basic building blocks: two environmentally harmless monomers called terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol.

While plastic-eating fungi has been discovered in the past, they haven't been so easy to produce. By identifying the gene behind the bacterium's creation of these two enzymes, the scientists were able to recreate them in the lab and have them break down the plastic on their own, suggesting a more effective approach to recycling and plastic waste management could be on the way.

The research was published in the journal Science.

Source: Science via The Conversation

22 comments
LakeeshaGobeatcha
The answer to this plastic problem is to mandate that corn and other biodegradable crops be used for such products. Problem solved.
DimitriSCheckin
Great news. :)
Catweazle
Read 'The Andromeda Strain' by the late, much-missed Michael Crichton. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Andromeda_Strain
VirtualGathis
@LakeeshaGobeatcha7-wow, just wow. So the solution to plastic is to starve the world. The 10% ethanol mandate for fuel has already spiked the price of grain and corn to the point where the poor are unable to afford it. If we mandate good cuppa be wasted on plastic production only the wealthy will be able to afford food. Plastic is so integrated into our lives that this mandate would affect everything, every step of the manufacture and distribution... Everything would double or triple in price. Then there is the fact that there isn't enough arable land in the world to meet the world's demand for plastic based on food crops. So no corn plastic is not the answer to anything.
BillRomano
great!!! and what happens when these little critters get loose and start to attack "good plastic" This may NOT be good, folks!
jerryd
Sorry but recycling them back into plastic is the key. And can be done just by heating it up some turns it back into moldable/pourable extremely strong plastic or heat it more and turns into it's base components. It is such a strong easy to deal with material I'm surprised more things don't use them as base materials for manufacturing.
DomainRider
Ooh, can we predict a potential 'grey goo' scenario, where these bug genes spread to other bugs in the environment and our plastics begin to disintegrate around us, while in use...?
Edward Vix
Not a good use for foodstuffs like corn (maize). In any case, crops of all kinds use vast amounts of resources like water and energy and degrade the environment in other ways.
Chas Newport
What to do going forward is a different problem and your solution is a good. This clever guy is looking at all the non-biodegradable stuff screwing up our marine ecosystems. Evolution in action. Genius.
f8lee
@Lakeesha - and who exactly would "mandate" such a thing (disregarding the questionable value of using corn, which sounds nice and makes you feel good but may not be all that much better)? Is there a body that can take a global stance? Would China, for instance, give a hoot as to what the US Congress says?