Fact Check: Did Japanese Scientists Really Find Plastic Eating Bacteria?

collection of various plastic bags isolated on white backgroundIt sounds like something out of a 1980s science fiction novel, or perhaps an environmentalist’s wildest dreams, but this week media outlets all over the world breathlessly reported about the “plastic eating bacteria set to revolutionize waste disposal.”

Plastic is one of the most widely used substances on the face of the planet, and also one of the most recycled. Up to 100% of PET plastics can be made from recycled materials, but when plastics aren’t diverted from the trash can, they can take 500 years to decompose.

For years, scientists and futurists have imagined a world where some kind of specially designed bacteria could digest the chemicals in plastics. This would allow plastics to naturally decompose the same way that organic matter does.

In March, Japanese scientists from Kyoto University in Japan reported a breakthrough in this area, and that brave new world came one step closer to reality.

Extreme Tech reported:

Enter Ideonella sakaiensis: Japanese scientists have shown this bacteria is capable of digesting a chemical called polyethylene terephthalate, the substrate of many plastics we find in household products like bottled drinks, cosmetics and household cleaners. This could be revolutionary…except for one catch: The bacteria in question digest plastic at an epically slow rate, approximately six weeks to eat through a thin layer of PET.

Of course, science often progresses by inches, not leaps and bounds. Even so, recent developments in the field of genetic engineering offer a way forward. Already, the Japanese scientists have sequenced the DNA of Ideonella sakaiensis and are looking for ways to turn the bug into a plastic-eating machine.

To make this breakthrough discovery, the Kyoto University researchers did something surprising — they looked.

The scientists collected samples from plastic recycling facilities and looked for bacteria that could break down plastics into environmentally friendly compounds. Even more exciting, the scientists believe Ideonella sakaiensis evolved in just the past few decades.

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