I’m sure many of us recycle whenever we can, and we’d love to do even more. There are a lot of initiatives aimed at recycling plastic, for instance. However, plastic pollution is nevertheless mounting. Research on things like ideonella sakaiensis could help to enable a biodegrading process to handle plastic waste in the future.
According to scientists, only 30% of the plastic acquires a new life after being thrown away. In particular, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or commonly seen as plastic bottles, are especially resistant to the environment.
Bacteria that break down plastic pollution – real or science fiction?
— OER Project (@OERProject) December 29, 2018
Can PET Be Recycled?
More to the point, can nature take care of PET for us? There have been many attempts to combat the issue of recycling PET. In 2016, a team from Kyoto and Keio universities had identified a bacteria called ideonella sakaiensis.
This bacteria breaks down PET by producing two enzymes capable of efficiently converting PET into terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. These are organic compounds that are basically environmentally-friendly. The study was done on 250 samples of PET, 75% of which was catabolized at CO2 after degradation by the bacteria.
However, other members of the science community have claimed that the conclusions were misleading. In 2018, a group of scientists from the University of Portsmouth, the University of South Florida, and other institutions have concluded that a mutation in the enzymes of ideonella sakaiensiscan biodegrades PET more efficiently.
Deutsches Forscherteam um #UFZ-Mikrobiologen H. Heipieper identifiziert Mikroben, die Polyurethane abbauen können. "PU-Verbindungen dienen den #Bakterien als Kohlenstoff-, Stickstoff- und Energiequelle", sagt er. #Plastik #Mikrobiologie @Helmholtz_HZI https://t.co/8FUyvNtKp3
— UFZ (@UFZ_de) March 27, 2020
As recently as March of this year, a group of German scientists has discovered a new strain of Pseudomonas bacteria at a waste disposal site. It was attacking polyurethane. Known for its ability to withstand harsh conditions, the bacterium might offer a solution to the problem of plastic pollution. Of course, it’s very hard to picture right now how this solution could be scaled.
These findings are indeed looking suitable for recycling. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that we’re still a long way away from the industrialization of recycling organisms. As one of the members of the German research team, Hermann Heipieper, put it, “the main message should be to avoid plastic being released into the environment in the first place.”
Photo credit: The feature image has been taken by Nick Fewings.
Sources: Frontiers in Microbiology / ScienceMag / ScienceMag / Nature Research / Damian Carrington (The Guardian) / Carmen Drahl (Chemical & Engineering News) / Stu Borman (Chemical & Engineering News)