Who remembers Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel ‘The Andromeda Strain’, about the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism that degrades plastic? Or the first episode of Doomwatch, a BBC sci-fi series that aired in the 70s, which revolved around a plastic dissolving microbe and was aptly named ‘The Plastic Eaters’?
Forty years ago, this concept was pure science fiction, but last month Japanese researchers from Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University have discovered a bacterium that feeds off the world’s most common plastic, PET. After studying 250 samples taken from recycling facilities, the scientists isolated a single source of decomposition and have named it Ideonella sakaiensis. During the study, the bacterium took six weeks to completely degrade a small film of PET when kept at a constant 29°C.
The world’s annual plastic production exceeds 300 million tonnes, 50 million of which are PET, the plastic notoriously resistant to biodegradation and used to make disposable plastic bottles. According to a report by The Guardian, every year a third of all plastic ends up in the environment, either in landfills or the ocean. Experts are now questioning how the new bacterium can be used to manage this ever-growing amount and reduce the damage to the planet.
While most agree that this discovery is promising, opinions are divided as to the potential of the bacterium. Just one of the many theories, suggested by biotechnology professor Uwe Bornscheuer, is that Ideonella sakaiensis could be added to landfills to speed up the process of decomposition. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Bornscheuer admitted that ‘the rate of degradation is rather slow’ but as it is thought that plastic takes around 450 years to break down unassisted, anything less would be a significant improvement. Research on this and other possibilities is currently underway.
Interestingly, initial genetic examination revealed that the bacteria might have developed its taste for PET in response to the increased amount of it in the environment over the past 70 years. While this rapid evolution is rare, it is possible. And it makes you wonder, with this extraordinary yet terrifying ability to adapt to their surroundings, what, or who, does the bacteria eat when all the rubbish is gone?