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Plastic-Eating Bacteria Could Help Alleviate Pollution

A newly-discovered bacterial species might be the solution to pollution: it has the ability to consume a commonly-used plastic completely. The paper is published in Science.

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The newly-found microbe named Ideonella sakaiensis has been spotted in samples of soil from Japan. It has also been located in wastewater and recycling plant sludge. It is able to work miracles on a type of plastic that is very common, used in the manufacture of bottles and polyester clothing and known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is notorious for its stiffness, stability as a compound, and strength that account for the difficulty entailed in its disposal. The samples in which I. sakaiensis was discovered were actually contaminated with particles of PET. The bacteria feed on PET like only very few microorganisms can.

In fact, I. sakaiensis considers PET as its main food source. It adheres to PET particles, releasing a protein that allows it to trigger the complete decomposition of the compound into molecules that are edible to it. This is remarkable given that, on one hand, PET is produced in large amounts, and on another, it is not easily degraded, taking a long period of time to be decomposed (some estimates purport that plastic bottles made from this material take as long as 450 years to be broken down), all of which leads to a much unwanted accumulation of the plastic in landfills and in the ocean.

The authors, therefore, conclude that I. sakaiensis might be a solution to cleaning up plastic waste — it might be used in the development of recycling techniques. The research team found that the bacterium has two enzymes that are used to make of PET an ideal food source. However, the process of degradation is time-consuming: I. sakaiensis takes 6 weeks to cause the full degradation of a small film of low-grade PET. This implies that it will take even longer to get rid of the waste material.

The scientists are, however, positive that they can accelerate the decomposition. More studies on this bacterial strain will potentially lead to ways to improve the degradation process.

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