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Researcher Found New Bacteria That Can Eat Plastic Waste

Last modified: March 22 2016

Plastic may no longer be non-biodegradable, because scientists have just discovered a new species of bacteria that can eat plastic! In case you forgot your science lessons, if something is biodegradable it means that it can be decomposed, and the decomposing is usually done by bacteria. Until now, plastic has been non-biodegradable because there was no bacteria that could break it down, but it looks like that’s about to change. 

A team of researchers in Japan discovered the PET-eating bacteria in the debris around a recycling unit. 

The researchers named the new bacteria Ideonella sakaiensis, after the Japanese city of Sakai where it was found. "It's the most unique thing. The bacterium can degrade PET and then make their body from PET," says Shosuke Yoshida, a microbiologist at Kyoto University and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Science.

PET or polyethylene terephthalate, is the type of plastic that is used to make soft drink bottles, containers for cleaning products and cosmetic cases.

Plastic Eating Bacteria

The bacteria break down the plastic into carbons and water.

Plastics are made of long chains of hydrocarbons, which consist of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Each atom is actually far larger than the size of the bacteria, so the bacteria can’t eat it and then break it down – it secretes two enzymes onto the plastic molecules that break it up into pieces, and then eats it!

The research team was able to collect the bacteria and isolate it, and they watched it disintegrate a plastic film in about six weeks.

Plastic Eating Bacteria

Here’s the good news and the bad news.

As of now, estimates suggest that anywhere between 4 million to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic are washed into the sea each year, and that’s just a fraction of the amount of plastic that is being produced!

The good news is that if this bacteria is cultured and sprayed into landfills, it may help us tackle our plastic waste problem to some extent.

The bad news is that this bacteria multiplies very rapidly, but eats plastic very slowly, as is evidenced by the fact that it took six weeks to decompose a single piece of plastic film. According to the researchers, it may not be a viable solution to the problem of plastic waste because otherwise it would already be present at landfills around the world. 

The other thing we have to worry about is storage. The reason why everything is packaged in plastic is because it’s waterproof and bacteria-proof. If plastic is now vulnerable to bacteria, it can’t be used to store foods, drinks and the million other commodities we package in it.

Well, all we can do now is hope that researchers around the world take this discovery further and somehow find a way to save the planet!

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