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Biotech News Science Technology

Plastic-Eating Bacteria Could Help Clean Up Waste (inhabitat.com) 75

Kristine Lofgren writes: Japanese researchers have discovered a microorganism that literally devours ocean-clogging plastic. The bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis can completely break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common plastic used in bottles and containers. That type of plastic makes up a huge proportion of all the plastic waste in the world, particularly in the ocean. The bacterium uses a pair of enzymes to break down PET and turn it into a food source. The problem is, it takes up to six weeks for the bacterium to completely breakdown a small, low-grade sample of PET. Microbiologist Kohei Oda of the Kyoto Institute of Technology co-authored the study published this week in the journal Science, and he told PBS NewsHour he was "very surprised to find microorganisms that degrade PET" because the plastic has always been thought to be non-biodegradable. Now, scientists just need to figure out how to harness the hungry little bug to recycle plastic and reduce pollution.
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Plastic-Eating Bacteria Could Help Clean Up Waste

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 12, 2016 @04:23AM (#51683625)

    what could possibly go wrong
    gdz

    • by LesFerg ( 452838 )

      I want to patent credit cards made out of aluminium, cos we all know the bugs will get loose. Tho not many people will be going shopping when all the cars electrics start shorting out. Damn

      • No reason for alarm (Score:4, Informative)

        by Mal-2 ( 675116 ) on Saturday March 12, 2016 @06:08AM (#51683749) Homepage Journal

        I don't think there is anything to be concerned about. They didn't engineer this bacterium, they discovered it. Yet we don't have a massive epidemic of credit-card-eating bacteria everywhere. Why? Probably because although they can eat it, it isn't their preferred food source. Now if someone knocks out some metabolic pathways so that they have to eat plastic to survive, then maybe we'll have something to worry about.

        • We already have worms eating polystyrene. So far, no one's fridge got eaten.
        • I don't think there is anything to be concerned about. They didn't engineer this bacterium, they discovered it. Yet we don't have a massive epidemic of credit-card-eating bacteria everywhere. Why? Probably because although they can eat it, it isn't their preferred food source. Now if someone knocks out some metabolic pathways so that they have to eat plastic to survive, then maybe we'll have something to worry about.

          Aren't you concerned that some scientist will knock out those metabolic pathways? Or that natural mutations in that direction might occur merely because of a change from their natural environment to one which is rich in PET and scarce in their currently-preferred nutrients?

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Why would we be concerned? It took biology the entirety of the Carboniferous period to develop effective ways of eating/breaking-down wood. We still use wood products. It will probably take a similar time frame for biology to be able to degrade plastics in general at the same rate... and then we (if we survive) will still be using plastic, and wood, products.

            captcha: "rotten"

          • by KGIII ( 973947 )

            > Aren't you concerned that some scientist will knock out those metabolic pathways?

            Nope. Not even a little. Why? Because I kind of understand the science. I am not a geneticist but I've seen a whole lot of documentaries, read a whole bunch, and even read a study or two. With all this free information online (some needing piracy) it's unfortunate that more people don't take a few minutes to try something different.

            I'll expand on that... This is not a "holier than thou" or "better than" intended post.

            You'v

        • I don't think there is anything to be concerned about. They didn't engineer this bacterium, they discovered it.

          That's not good news, that's BAD news... Nature is getting better at destroying the things we use because we thought they were effectively indestructible.

          The lead in Flint Michigan's water will look like a quaint inconvenience when bacteria figure out how to feed on the innumerable PVC and ABS pipes municipal utilities have directly buried, to distribute water to homes and businesses.

          • I don't think there is anything to be concerned about. They didn't engineer this bacterium, they discovered it.

            That's not good news, that's BAD news... Nature is getting better at destroying the things we use because we thought they were effectively indestructible.

            The lead in Flint Michigan's water will look like a quaint inconvenience when bacteria figure out how to feed on the innumerable PVC and ABS pipes municipal utilities have directly buried, to distribute water to homes and businesses.

            Do we really need pipes that last hundreds of years? Civilization will be just fine if we have to replace our pipes every couple decades. We did just fine before the invention of plastic with iron pipes that eventually rusted. Things rot, we replace them. As another poster pointed out, we still make plenty of stuff out of wood and there are lots of things that can eat wood.

            • Civilization will be just fine if we have to replace our pipes every couple decades.

              The cost to replace such pipes in an urban area is positively ASTRONOMICAL. So no, civilization will have extremely difficulties with the drastically increased price of water, due to the need to frequently replace delivery infrastructure.

              we still make plenty of stuff out of wood and there are lots of things that can eat wood.

              Wood is treated with harsh chemicals which will kill most pests that would otherwise eat it. In ad

          • The lead in Flint Michigan's water will look like a quaint inconvenience when bacteria figure out how to feed on the innumerable PVC and ABS pipes

            Did you even read the summary, let alone the actual article? A bug has been discovered that can (slowly and inefficiently) digest polyethylene terephthalate. That is a very different plastic to both poly-vinylidene chloride (PVC) and the acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) family of plastics. Surprisingly, the different names of the plastics reflect their diffe

        • by LesFerg ( 452838 )

          I guess it was the suggestion of a bunch of wide-eyed scientists going 'wow' at a new discovery. You just know they will try to genetically modify this organism in the name of "cleaning up the pollution".

      • Not to mention what this will do to my plans for 3D printed Ocean Liners and Yachts...
        Damn
      • Neither cable insulation nor CC's are made of PET.
        • "Neither cable insulation nor CC's are made of PET"

          "Life, uh ... finds a way" The imaginary Dr Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park.

      • "I want to patent credit cards made out of aluminium, cos we all know the bugs will get loose."

        This bacterium is natural, not a GMO, so it doesn't have a GMO's magical powers to thrive in every environment and gobble up everything.

        • by LesFerg ( 452838 )

          This bacterium is natural, not a GMO, so it doesn't have a GMO's magical powers to thrive in every environment and gobble up everything.

          Um yes, that is true, but every modified organism started out as a natural organism, didn't it? I mean, "modified" kind of suggests that they started with something. And it was meant as a humorous "profit of doom" kind of statement, it's not like I'm cashing in my lifes treasures and building a plastic-free underground shelter... yet.

    • Nothing. PET is a niche use plastic with a lot of health debate around it and a lot of other products waiting to replace it. The mechanism of breaking it down is pretty specific and I don't see it fast-evolving to eat other polymers. Wake me up when it starts eating polyethylene.

      Then again, it depends on the regulatory response. If PET is assumed bio-degradable, it's use (and it's health effects) may increase.
    • by mikael ( 484 )

      You could transfer those genes into fish and insects. Then they would devour everything plastic in sight.

    • Someone should write a book about this.

    • Do you want the Andromeda Strain? Because that's how you get the Andromeda Strain.
    • what could possibly go wrong

      What indeed? Mutant 59: The Plastic-Eaters [goodreads.com]

  • The probem is, (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 12, 2016 @04:52AM (#51683647)

    it takes up to six weeks for the bacterium to completely breakdown

    Why is this a problem? What's the hurry, last week we didn't know this existed and now it's too slow?

  • It sounds like it could have Ice 9 like problems. Will it eat our civilisation?
  • I'm mid-Pacific and they're almost through the bottom of my yacht.

  • http://www.amazon.com/Mutant-59-Plastic-Eaters-Kit-Pedler/dp/0670496626
    • It possible humankind will be destroyed by toying around with this science stuff that is beyond our ken.

      Of course, there are so many other candidates lining up that it makes an unintended mutation a very long shot. I could point out how science has already saved you from starvation and many horrible childhood diseases, but I won't.

      Let's just agree it is fortunate nature hasn't bio-engineered a way to break down the material all of our homes are made of.

  • Read the book "Mutant 59: The plastic eaters"

  • Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

  • PET is common in the waste stream because it's common in use.

    This means that the moment we figure out a way to use this to consume pet efficiently, everything in the works that depends on pet to function is now threatened if the organism gets into the wild, compelling scientists to research a coating or addative that repels it...and then we are back to square one.

  • by Thruen ( 753567 ) on Saturday March 12, 2016 @09:20AM (#51684111)
    PET is one of those plastics that's very easy to recycle already, people just don't do it. And I mean really easy to recycle, I make and sell poker chips that are made largely out of recycled bottles (that's PET) and any bad part can simply be ground up and thrown back in the hopper so the material is used again. Obviously there's a little more to recycling used bottles and whatnot, but the point is it's already really easy to recycle PET compared to many other materials. While I understand this isn't the same as nature being able to break it down, I don't understand what the big benefit to this over standard recycling. There is a much larger problem when it comes to recycling and that's the willing participation of the general population. Where I live we get fined for failing to sort recyclables, and people still don't do it. Solving that seems more important if you ask me.
    • by godrik ( 1287354 )

      While getting people to recycle in their home is an issue. It is not an issue a microbiologist can help with, a politician or an activist maybe, but a scientist, likely not.
      Different people can contribute to the problem in different way. Because PET is not the number one problem in recycling does not mean it should not be addressed or improved.

    • by CanadianMacFan ( 1900244 ) on Saturday March 12, 2016 @11:11AM (#51684371)

      I was listening to a podcast and they brought this up. Unfortunately I listen to a number of science ones and I can't find which one it was. But what I got from the interview was that they would like to be able to engineer the bacteria so that it would stop eating the plastic part way leaving it as the copolymers that went into making the plastic in the first place.

      The reason that PET plastics are durable is that the bonds between atoms and molecules are strong. To break these bonds requires a lot of energy. Most recycling of plastics takes the old plastic, chops it into pellets, and melts it into the new product. But the new product is almost never as good in quality as the original. Drink bottles don't go back to drink bottles. They use virgin plastic. Drink bottles get recycled into carpet or benches. Very useful things but you still need something to create the drink bottles from.

      The idea is that if you can use the bacteria to break down the PET into the copolymers without using a lot of energy then you can create "virgin" plastic suitable for any use without having to use fossil fuels as a source for plastic as you do today. There are projects looking at replacing fossil fuels with oils obtained from agriculture and those will still be needed since our demand for plastic is growing and our recycling rate is 100%.

      • by Thruen ( 753567 )
        I wish I could mod you up, this is helpful. Thanks. I did look it up and it's apparently an issue of sterilization rather than quality, but I never realized it was an issue at all before now. Assuming this bacteria doesn't grow out of control and eat civilization, I could see it being pretty beneficial.
        • Yes, when I was listening to the podcast that was my worry. Imagine them engineering a fast acting bacteria for the industrial process and then having it escape. I doubt that it harm life on earth but it would be devastating to the economy as we'd have to come up with another way to store things long term. It would also make way to do industrial sabotage. Imagine introducing this into the plastic of a bottler and in a few weeks all of their bottled goods start springing leaks (or bursting if they are under

  • by beernutmark ( 1274132 ) on Saturday March 12, 2016 @09:25AM (#51684121)
    While all the plastic is a pain, at least the carbon is sequestered in it. Or was. If all the plastic in all the landfills and the ocean was biodegraded I imagine we would see quite the CO2 increase in the atmosphere.
    • About 3% of the oil is used as feedstock for plastics, so it would only mean a modest increase in CO2. Besides, plastics in the ocean are already being (bio)degraded.
  • I am sure others had flashbacks of "unintended consequences"? How well can this be contained?

    Sounds like a big WHOOPS opportunity...

  • And then... (Score:4, Funny)

    by JustAnotherOldGuy ( 4145623 ) on Saturday March 12, 2016 @11:55AM (#51684521)

    "...And then it mutated and ate all the plastic in the world," said Og, as he threw another stick on the fire, huddling in the ash gray wasteland that used to be New York.

    "The scientists said it was 'totally safe' and 'nothing could go wrong'," Og continued, "but you kids don't remember that because that was back when we had electricity and people talked into little boxes they carried in their pockets."

    The children all laughed at Og, he always told the biggest lies because he was so old (almost 30!) and so his stories could not be believed.

    "What's a 'sy-en-tiss'?" whispered Janey.

    "They were the people that knew stuff and made the world run." Og said.

    The children laughed again, "No one makes the word run, silly!" they hooted.

  • Mutant 59: the Plastic Eaters. I read this book as a kid in the '70's. It scared me a bit to think how much we depend on plastic and how bad off we'd be if something came along and destroyed that for us.
  • It's been known for decades that there are bacteria that break down the common plastics, you can even grab plastics buried in a dump and find them chomping away.

    Even the kid in this article from 2008 didn't really discover something new:

    http://www.wired.com/2008/05/t... [wired.com]

  • That should increase demand and production about 100X!

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