“Nature can surprise us”: There’s a new species of bacteria that eats plastic

There’s an estimated 311 million tons of plastic (pdf) produced every year across the world. There will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, it’s probably in our food, and will likely leave its mark long after we’re gone.

 Polyethylene terephthalate (known as PET), which is used for manufacturing plastic bottles, makes up one fifth of the annual production of plastic. PET’s strength and stability under heat makes it an ideal material for packaging—it’s one of the world’s most-used plastics for a reason—but it’s properties also makes PET difficult to decompose (pdf).
Enter Ideonella sakaiensis, a newly discovered bacterium that feeds on PET. Researchers in Japan isolated the bacteria from the 250 samples of PET debris they collected from a recycling plant. The bacteria appeared to use a pair of enzymes to slowly break down PET.

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