New Bacteria Eats Plastic: Discovery Will Help Create Better Methods To Manage Plastic Waste

A group of Japanese scientists have discovered a new species of bacteria that eats a specific type of plastic, polyethylene terephthalate. An article discussing the new bacteria discovery has been published in the journal Science. Scientists believe that this bacteria will create improved methods of dealing with the 50 million tons of PET plastic waste that exists on Earth.

Polyethylene terephthalate is the type of plastic that makes up water bottles and other liquids that are sold by the bottle. PET is popular for manufacturers due to the plastic being very light, colorless, and durable. Previously, this type of plastic was not able to be broken down by natural methods. Many studies have been conducted on this type of plastic in order to find a biodegradable method. Until this new bacteria was discovered, nothing was found in nature that would eat the plastic.

In order to find this new bacteria, Japanese scientists and researchers from Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University collected 250 polyethylene terephthalate contaminated samples from sediment, soil, and wastewater from a plastic recycling center. The samples were scrutinized in order to see what bacteria were living and thriving on the plastic contaminated samples. It appeared that many organisms were breaking the plastic down, but further scrutiny proved that only one type of bacteria was eating away at the plastic. This newly discovered bacteria has been named Ideonella sakaiensis.

The Japanese scientists began to run tests in order to determine how this bacteria eats through the plastic. They discovered that the process was done through the use of two enzymes produced by the bacteria. The first enzyme produced by the bacteria creates a chemical on the plastic. This chemical is absorbed by the bacteria, where the second enzyme breaks it down further to create the energy that the bacteria needs to grow. The process is replicated over and over until the plastic is gone.

Scientists have determined that this process can break down a small layer of plastic in a six-week time period as long as the temperature stayed steady at 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Even though this bacteria discovery is said to be an enormous breakthrough, some scientists are unsure if it will really make a difference.

Tracy Mincer, who studies plastics in the ocean at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, commented on the new bacteria discovery.

“When I think it through, I don’t really know where it 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. 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.”

Plastic pollution is on the rise, especially in the oceans. A study conducted in 2010 concluded that eight million tons of plastic have ended up in the oceans across the Earth. It is speculated that the amount of plastic pollution in the oceans will increase by a factor of 10 over the next decade unless drastic measures are taken. An even more frightening statistic is that at the current level of pollution, the amount of plastic in the oceans will weigh more than the total of fish in the oceans by the year 2050.

Do you think this new bacteria discovery will help cut down on the amount of plastic waste?

[Photo by Wayne Parry/AP]