What Is Ideonella Sakaiensis? Newly Discovered Bacterium Breaks Down PET Plastic

We’re rapidly clogging the planet with plastic, but this could be a future solution.

In Brooklyn, activists are calling for a ban on fishing after a locally famous great horned owl that lived in Prospect Park died, tangled in plastic fishing line that cut into its legs. Anglers leave plastic fishing line on beaches and lakeshores, where it becomes a hazard for wildlife. In Colorado, it’s become such a problem that one state park has installed six special trash bins for the line.

Microplastics — tiny, microscopic bits of plastic from fleece clothing, cosmetics, and partially decomposed trash — are now appearing in agricultural soil, fish and even beer. The microtrash affects growth, reproduction and survival of aquatic creatures.

In the US, only 9 percent of plastic garbage gets recycled, and the amount we use is rapidly escalating. “If current trends continue, the researchers predict over 13 billion tons of plastic will be discarded in landfills or in the environment by 2050,” the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a statement accompanying a study on plastic garbage.

In addition to the Kyota team’s discovery, a couple other organisms can also digest plastics. A plastic-eating fungus called Pestalotiopsis microspora can consume a type of plastic called polyurethane. An insect known as the wax moth can eat polyethylene, which accounts for 40 percent of plastics. They started out eating beeswax, but the skill transferred.

“Wax is a complex mixture of molecules, but the basic bond in polyethylene, the carbon-carbon bond, is there as well,” said Federica Bertocchini, a biologist at Spain’s Institute of Biomedicine & Biotechnology of Cantabria. “The wax worm evolved a mechanism to break this bond.”   

But again, time is of the essence, and our rate of figuratively consuming plastics far outpaces the bacteria’s ability to literally consume them. Unless humans can find a way to use less plastic, we will have to find a way to speed up these organisms’ appetites. If it can be done on a massive scale, the researchers who came up with this discovery will leave a legacy that will help every living thing on the planet.

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