12 Mar 2016

Science: eating plastic with bacteria

From This Way Up, 12:15 pm on 12 March 2016

Plastic Photo: (CC0 Public Domain)

Bacteria that can break down one of the most commonly used forms of plastic have been identified by Japanese scientists.

Each year nearly 60 million tonnes of polyethylene teraphthalate (PET) plastic products are made and consumed worldwide. PET features widely in drink bottles, clothes and packaging.

But whatever its physical qualities, it's very definitely not bio-degradeable. So the plastic accumulates in seawater, soil and landfill, as well as being consumed by animals and returning to the food chain that way also.

Now a team at the Kyoto Institute of Technology led by scientist Shosuke Yoshida, writing in the journal Science, has found a strain of microbe that can eat PET.

Dr Chris Smith of The Naked Scientists told This Way Up's Simon Morton that the Japanese team found the microbe, called Ideonella sakaiensis, among 250 samples collected from PET-contaminated sites.

How these bacteria acquired the genes to degrade and digest PET is so far unknown. But the scientists speculate that the process of "lateral gene transfer", where bacteria grab random genes they can use from the environment, is probably responsible.

"Optimising these agents might be one way to clean up the millions of tonnes of plastic waste currently lying around the planet," Dr Smith said.