Researchers have found a new type of bacteria with an unusual appetite for PET plastic that could eat up a low-quality plastic bottle within weeks.
While scientists hope that the newly found microorganisms could help solve the growing plastic pollution problem, they also acknowledged that they needed to study the bizarre bacteria more.
The discovery was made public in a Science paper by a group of Japanese researchers. The team noted that the bacteria which can destroy the molecular bonds in PET plastics are new to science.
The team had to analyze hundreds of PET plastics samples before they could spot a colony of microorganisms that actually fed on plastic. Prof Uwe Bornscheuer who commented on the research paper explained that the molecular bounds in PET are extremely strong. So, until recently, no living organisms were able to break them down.
While plastic bottles need between 450 years and 1000 years to biodegrade, PET plastic bottles never degrade. Additionally, 90 percent of plastic bottles are never recycled, a fact people often ignore.
Fortunately, the bacteria dubbed Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 could bring some change. Researchers believe that the appetite for plastic was acquired as environment has become increasingly crowded with plastic in the last 70 years.
The team speculates that because the bacteria had only one source of food they had to either adapt or die. So, they developed special enzymes that can digest even the toughest plastic.
Still, the bacteria had a harder time in munching on PET plastic which is commonly used to produce plastic bottles. Researchers believe that with a few tweaks the bacteria could soon be used in massive clean-up operations and industrial recycling.
Prof Kenji Miyamoto of the Keio University in Japan and lead author of the research paper noted that crystallized PET is incredibly difficult to degrade. He acknowledged that it would take a long time before the bacteria could be put to use in industrial settings.
More than 30 percent of world’s plastics are discarded in the environment, while 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year. About one-sixth of global plastics are PET plastics.
Prof. Bornscheuer added that we are making progress with the new biodegradable plastics, but we need a solution for the existing non-biodegradable plastics, as well.
If Ideonella sakaiensis is stable enough, it could be used in pollution clean-up operations by sppraying it on floating ocean trash just like in operations combating oil spills.
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