“It is not yet clear whether Ideonella Sakaiensis can be used to solve the world’s pollution problem. Though the bacteria itself seems useful, it is not that hungry”
Japanese scientists have come up with what could be a solution to an important part of global pollution: a microorganism that feeds on plastic. There’s a catch, however: it needs to be genetically modified, in the first place. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the world’s most used polymer: it is used to make packaging and clothing. It’s also the most durable, making it an important environmental issue. More than 310 million tons of plastic are produced yearly, but only 14% of the total plastic waste is collected and recycled. There has been so far little evidence of organisms able to decompose and consume plastic: fungi species found in 2012 and mealworms are able to do so. Now Japanese scientists have discovered a bacteria “that is able to use PET as its major energy and carbon source”. The Ideonella Sakaiensis 201-F6 dissolves plastic by using two enzymes to convert PET to environmentally friendly terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. Microbiologist Kohei Oda confesses: “I was very surprised to find microorganisms that degrade PET, because so far, it has been said that PET is a non-biodegradable plastic”. It is far from clear whether Ideonella Sakaiensis can actually help solve the world’s pollution problem. The bacteria itself is useful, but it is just not that hungry. Professor Uwe Bornscheuer (Greifswald Institute of Biochemistry, Germany) admits that the decomposition was really slow: it took six weeks. "When we understand the underlying principles, then we can [potentially] improve the strain to make it better and faster", he says.