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Ideonella sakaiensis

The bacterium that “eats” plastic bottles

PET bottles: bacteria degraded 60-microgram plastic film within six weeks

Wikimedia Commons/Miniwiz SED PET bottles: bacteria degraded 60-microgram plastic film within six weeksWikimedia Commons/Miniwiz SED

A new species of bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, can break down and digest poly (ethylene terephthalate) plastics, also known as PET, a material used in water and soda bottles (Science, March 11, 2016).  A thin film of PET, weighing 60 micrograms, was degraded within six weeks by the microorganism, which was discovered by the research group headed by Kohei Oda at the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan.  The bacterium uses two enzymes, PETase and MHETase, to degrade and process PET.  To discover the bacterium, the scientists had to go out on the field.  First, they went to a recycling center and collected 250 PET bottles with all kinds of residue, such as water, mud and soil sediments.  Then, they identified various microorganisms in this material, including Ideonella sakaiensis.  PET waste disposal is a major environmental problem.  In 2013 alone, roughly 56 million metric tons of the plastic were produced worldwide.  Oda came to Brazil in 2007 on a visit funded by FAPESP, at the invitation of Luiz Juliano Neto from the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).  His objective was to study animal feces bacteria that could have industrial applications, especially in the decomposition of PET.  Oda also participated in research on proteolytic enzymes, which help break down proteins (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 142).