Japanese researchers recently discovered a microorganism that literally eats plastic. The bacterium, now named Ideonella sakaiensis, has been proven to completely break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common type of plastic used in bottles and other containers. That type of plastic makes up a huge proportion of all the plastic waste in the world, particularly in the ocean, and now, scientists are investigating whether the hungry little bug can be used to recycle plastic and reduce pollution.
The bacterium uses a pair of enzymes to break down PET and turn it into a food source – much the same as the way other animals’ bodies (including humans) use enzymes to break down other types of food. Problem is, it takes up to six weeks for the bacterium to completely breakdown a small, low-grade sample of PET. If they were able to ‘eat’ higher quality plastics, it would take much, much longer. Microbiologist Kohei Oda of the Kyoto Institute of Technology co-authored the study published this week in the journal Science, and he told PBS NewsHour he was “very surprised to find microorganisms that degrade PET” because the plastic has always been thought to be non-biodegradable.
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