A team of scientists from Japan have stumbled upon bacteria that have evolved and adapted to consuming and breaking down plastic.
This is a remarkable discovery when you think about all the havoc plastic is doing to the environment. The team of Japanese scientists discovered the bacteria while collection wastewater samples that contained plastic items.
The bacteria known as Ideonella sakaiensis is said to have adapted to an exclusive diet consisting of plastic material. The bacteria breaks down plastic using two enzymes. First, the bacteria clings on the plastic material and then embark on breaking it down into terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol in a two-step process. The bacteria then digest the two broken down substances.
Plastics have been around for about 70 years now, and it appears somewhere along that time, the bacteria adapted to making a meal out of plastics. The full details of their mutation have been published in Science.
This discovery has naturally elicited much excitement about the possible solutions especially towards the plastic menace choking up landmines, water bodies, and sewer systems among others. However, wide scale deployment of these bacteria is currently not feasible as their reproduction (multiplication) is relatively slow.
New Scientist reports that typically it would take six weeks and temperature of 30oC for the bacteria to degrade a thumb-size piece of plastic. For wide scale deployment of the bacteria, scientists would have to first genetically engineer the bacterium and speed up their multiplication process to something close to that of E.coli and have the chomping abilities close to Ideonella sakaiensis.
These bacteria are not the first natural organisms to be discovered to possess the capacity to break down plastics. Back in 2012, there was another discovery of the Amazonian fungus that can break down polyurethane. Although the bacteria do promise far greater efficiency than the fungus, still the science community will first have to find a way to speed up their multiplication.