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Newfound bacteria can eat plastic

Researchers say the bacteria could break down a thin film of PET in a few weeks.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 11, 2016 at 10:26 AM
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SAKAI, Japan, March 11 (UPI) -- Researchers in Japan have discovered a new species of bacteria that can eat a common type of plastic. The bacteria species is Ideonella sakaiensis and the plastic is PET or polyethylene terephthalate.

Scientists found the bacteria growing on piles of plastic debris in the Japanese city of Sakai. PET is found in everything from plastic bottles and polyester clothing to food packaging and thermal insulation.

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Plastics feature long molecule chains called polymers, which most organisms can't break down. Lab tests show the newfound bacteria use two enzymes to dice up the polymers before they're consumed. Inside the bacteria's cells, PET is further broken down and its carbon and energy is used to build more cells.

"It's the most unique thing. This bacterium can degrade PET and then make their body from PET," lead researcher Shosuke Yoshida, a microbiologist at Kyoto University, told NPR.

The work of Yoshida and his colleagues was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

Researchers say the bacteria could break down a thin film of PET is a few weeks. It sounds like a boon for a world seemingly drowning in plastic, but most agree the bacteria is unlikely to put a dent in pollution. It eats too slowly, and its plastic consumption gives off the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

"When I think it through, I don't really know where it gets us," Tracy Mincer, a plastic pollution expert and researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't see how microbes degrading plastics is any better than putting plastic bottles in a recycling bin so they can be melted down to make new ones."

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