New Plastic-Eating Bacteria Could Solve A Big Environment Problem

More than 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year, but only about 10% of it makes it to a recycling plant. The rest ends up as litter in ocean or landfills, causing a major environmental problem. Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade. Now scientists in Japan have discovered a plastic-eating bacteria that can help solve the pollution scourge.

This bacteria decomposes plastic in just six weeks

According to a study published Thursday in the journal Science, the new bacteria can completely break the molecular bonds of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or polyester), one of the world’s most used plastics. Japanese scientists were searching through sediments at a plastic bottle recycling plant when they found a bacteria that has evolved to consume PET.

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The bacteria, called Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, took just six weeks to completely degrade low-quality plastic. It took longer to consume highly crystallized PET, which is commonly used in plastic bottles. Prof Kenji Miyamoto of Keio University, the co-author of the study, said it is extremely difficult to decompose highly crystallized PET. A major drawback is that the bacteria only consumes PET. That means researchers have to find other biological agents to break down other types of plastic.

There might be other plastic-eating bacteria as well

The discovery suggests that there might be other bacteria that break down a variety of plastics, and simply needed to be found. Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 turns PET into a substance called MHET, which is then further degraded into basic components of PET. It can potentially become a powerful tool in the fight against pollution caused by plastic materials.

Researchers admitted that the plastic-eating bacteria was still slow in degrading PET. They said it was only the beginning. Its enzymes and processes could be refined to use them for pollution clean-up or industrial recycling. Japanese scientists have already sequenced the bacteria’s genome, which may help them develop stronger and faster strains.