More than 220 million tons of plastic are produced each year, and despite greater emphasis on recycling programs, much of it gets dumped in landfills and oceans around the world. The U.S., for example, only recycles about 14% of the nearly 33 million tons of plastic containers and packaging that winds up in American landfills every year.
Now Japanese researchers are debuting what could be a tiny solution to the big plastic problem. Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 is a bacteria that eats PET, a polymer commonly used in plastics that’s nearly impossible to biodegrade. (You can see the full study in the March 11 edition of Science.) When placed on PET, I. sakaiensis attaches to the polymer and degrades it into into an intermediate substance called mono(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalic acid—MHET for short. From there, a second enzyme breaks the MHET into the two basic building blocks of PET. That process may not sound too exciting to people who aren’t hardcore chemistry fans, but I. sakaiensis’ ability to both eliminate PET waste and separate the polymer into its own basic ingredients makes this bacteria twice as useful to scientists.
With I. sakaiensis, “you have the chance to get rid of the PET waste because you can degrade it,” says Uwe T. Bornscheuer, a biochemist at Greifswald University in Germany who was not involved in the research. (We couldn’t reach the researchers before this article went live.) “The other option is if you don’t want to degrade it, you can break it down to the monomers and you can make new [PET] polymer out of it.” Read more