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Description of a Bacterium that Metabolizes PET Plastic


Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the most common forms of plastic.  It is used to make those little creatures that sit on your desk as well as many other useful items, but until now, it has been impossible to degrade easily.  Science magazine on March 11 reported the discovery of a bacterium that is able to break down PET and feed on it; this report was picked up and repeated by Science News.  This bacterium was found living in recycling plant sludge, soil, and wastewater during a systematic survey of microbes in Japan.  It uses two enzymes to crack PET down into its basic parts, ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid.

These two molecules can be metabolized for energy just as glucose is used by ordinary cells.  The two novel enzymes produced by this bacterium are required to break PET down into environmentally benign molecules that can be used as a carbon source and to produce energy.  The only barrier to breakdown of PET in the presence of this bacterium is its size– those little statues are solid PET.  Prior to metabolism, the PET must be ground down into small particles.  A recycling plant could use a grinder to break down large pieces of PET into bite-sized bits that the bacterium could easily eat.

The evolution of organisms that can feed on plastic is a straightforward example of how the process of “survival of the fittest” works.  Anything that is available in the environment for consumption and anything that stands in the way of an organism’s survival will be a source of evolutionary drive.  Whether it is an antibiotic or just a lump of plastic, something will evolve that can grow on it.

This is good news for the ocean; we have previously described the contamination of the world’s seas by countless bits of microplastic, covering and filling the earth with an invisible pile of plastic trash.  The presence of so much plastic is a resource for the world’s micro-organisms that is impossible for them to resist.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Robin Atkina Smollar permalink
    2016-04-08 12:06

    Sounds like good news.


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