(Observer) How ‘super-enzymes’ that eat plastics could curb our waste problem

In 2016 researchers led by microbiologist Kohei Oda of the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan reported a surprise discovery. Oda’s team visited a recycling site that focused on items made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a clear plastic that is used to make clothing fibres and drinks bottles.

Like all plastics, PET is a material made up of long string-like molecules. These are assembled from smaller molecules strung together into chains. The chemical bonds in PET chains are strong, so it is long-lasting – exactly what you do not want in a single-use plastic.

Oda’s team took samples of sediment and wastewater that were contaminated with PET, and screened them for micro-organisms that could grow on the plastic. It found a new strain of bacterium, called Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6. This microbe could grow on pieces of PET. Not only that: Oda’s team reported that the bacterium could use PET as its main source of nutrients, degrading the PET in the process.

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Posted in Ecology, Science & Technology