Scientists Have Discovered A Bacteria That Has Evolved To Eat Plastic

Scientists Have Discovered a Bacteria That's Evolved to Eat Plastic

A team of Japanese scientists has discovered a bacteria that's evolved to break down and consume PET -- one of the world's most environmentally damaging plastics. The team discovered the bacteria living on plastic items found in wastewater samples it was collecting. Called Ideonella sakaiensis, it appears to consume a diet made up exclusively of PET, which it breaks down using a pair of enzymes. The bacteria cling to the plastic, then break the plastic down into terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol in a two-step process. They then digest those two substances. PET was only invented about 70 years ago. That means the bacteria must have evolved the ability to consume the plastic over the intervening decades. The results are published in Science.

The team is obviously excited about the prospect of using the bacteria to clean up the planet. There are, after all, millions of tons of waste PET on the surface of our planet -- on landfills and in our seas. But right now, the bacteria are inefficient: New Scientist reports that it takes "6 weeks at 30°C to fully degrade a thumb-nail-sized piece of PET". That's because the bacteria multiplies relatively slowly, so it may be possible to genetically engineer a bacterium that combines the speed of multiplication of something like E.coli with the plastic-chomping abilities of Ideonella sakaiensis.

It's not the first natural organism to consume plastic. In 2012, there were reports of an Amazonian fungus that was able to break down polyurethane. But in terms of cleaning the planet, bacteria could be far more efficient. Let's see if the team can speed the process up.

[Science via New Scientist]

Image: Flickr / Nicolas Nova

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    Yeah awesome, right up to the point where we lose control of it and it starts breaking down PET in things we never thought of but are critical. Maybe our driverless cars will indeed have bugs in them. Not saying we don't need a solution for the pollution, just that historically humans are good at helping along unintended consequences.

    Don't modify it you stupid children! Just put it to use.
    Stupid bloody human race. *frustration*

    Let me just get this right. Scientists discover bateria that have mutated/evolved to digest PET in a short span of time, and now they want to speed them up!
    Thus giving them the ability to evolve into perhaps some kind of freak-ish human eating bacteria.
    Sounds like a great idea...

      Thus giving them the ability to evolve into perhaps some kind of freak-ish human eating bacteria

      As opposed to the millions of bacteria that already do eat humans?

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