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Plastic-eating bacterium

by Floro Mercene

Plastic is so cheap that it is used for disposable – often single use – products. As a result, a huge amount of it ends up polluting the earth, creating massive global environmental problems. Plastic clogs cities’ sewer systems and increase the risk of flooding. More than 8 million tons of plastic wastes end up in the ocean each year posing a serious threat of choking marine life to death. Microplastics could poison marine organisms and, because they enter the food chain, possibly humans as well.

Despite recycling efforts, most plastic can persists for hundreds of years in the environment. Earth is rapidly becoming giant pile of plastic waste.

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal recently, a team of international scientists made a discovery while examining a naturally occurring bacterium discovered in a waste recycling center in Japan in 2016. Japanese researchers believe the bacterium evolved fairly recently, since plastics were not invented until the 1940s. Known as Ideonella sakaiensis, it appears to feed exclusively on a type of plastic known as polyenthylene terephthalate (PET), used widely in plastic bottles.

In a new study, the team of scientists originally began running tests to see how Ideonella sakaiensis managed to produce an enzyme capable of degrading PET. Those, it turned out, inadvertently made the enzyme, PETase, even better at degrading PET. “We’ve made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already. That’s really exciting because that means that there’s potential to optimize the enzyme even further.” the researcher said.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme further to see if they can make it capable of breaking down PET plastics on an industrial scale.