Ideonella Sakaiensis the Plastic Eating Bacteria
Plastic bottles are reputed contributors to plastic pollution in general. Approximately 20,000 plastic bottles are used every second. That’s a million bottles every minute, half of a trillion bottles by 2020, and a staggering 20% increase of 583.3 billion by 2021! Wow, that’s a lot to take in. Lucky for us, something arrived to save the day.
Meet Ideonella sakaiensis, a bacterium that eats plastic bottles like a pro!
Microbiologists from Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University are the first to discover this phenomenal species last March 2016. They accidentally found it after gathering contaminated samples near the recycling sites of Sakai, Japan. They can determine a one-of-a-kind enzyme, called PETase, that is capable of breaking down a kind of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate aka PET. This specific type of polyester is widely used to manufacture plastic bottles around the globe.
At long last, it’s about time to do something about the plastics’ near-immortality for half a century before complete decomposition. After millenniums of accumulating plastics on the face of the Earth, we can finally see a shimmer of silver lining. What a great time to be alive!
Getting to know more about our heroes, here are three reasons that make them so awesome!
- Biological weaponry for a synthetic enemy.
We all have to agree on a common enemy – plastic pollution. The seemingly unstoppable production of synthetic goods, like plastics, is like killing the planet softly. Plastic wastes have ways of getting to the food chains of our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, by getting eaten. Animals of all forms and sizes consume vast amounts of plastics more than you can imagine, and they pay their lives as a price. Large animals like the sperm whale on the southern coast of Spain was found dead by consuming 64 lbs of plastics. Another heartbreaking story is about a 20-year old elephant from Kerala, India that died after consuming plastic wastes that caused multiple organ failures. This is ironic because plastics was invented initially to save the lives of elephants. Smaller animals like birds and fishes can also consume the smaller plastic debris called microplastics. The bottom line is, we know for an absolute fact that plastic pollution needs to be stopped before the time is up. And this plastic-eating bacterium is currently holding the highest potentials for biological weaponry in an all-out-war against this plastic pollution in the future.
- It’s both an evolutionary and revolutionary breakthrough.
It took around 50 years of gradual evolution before a microorganism can finally adapt to consume plastics for metabolic growth. Because of this bacterium’s unique taste for a plastic snack, we can now begin to see the light at the end of this Era of Plastic Overkill. Not bad for a rookie in the business of biological evolution.
At its purest form, this bacterium takes its time in breaking down PET polymers. To speed things up, our generation’s geniuses started to genetically modify this microbe to give it an appetite boost. The primary goal is to make a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) that can digest plastics for only a couple of days. Indeed, scientific revolution at its finest!
- The promising solution for efficient recycling
According to National Geographic, 91% of the world’s plastics skip the recycling process and directly enter our landfills. Thanks to single-use plastics, the amount of failures for an efficient recycling system is skyrocketing. With the discovery of this microbial species, scientists are hoping to finally clog the leaks of the current recycling loop for plastics. Instead of waiting forever for these wastes to decay, there now exists a mighty microorganism to bring them back to nature, without being detrimental.
Experts predict that when utilised for widespread degradation, these PETase-containing microbes can consume more than 50 million tons of plastic wastes a year. When done correctly, this will eventually end the worldwide plastic pollution, like Sweden’s Millions of Microplastics Leaked into the Ocean, as an example.
Amidst all the thrills of bioengineering a fast plastic-eating bacterium, let’s not forget that at the end of the day, we are still the ones responsible for taking the fight seriously.
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed”. – Mahatma Gandhi
Indeed, we are a civilisation with an insatiable hunger for always wanting something more. We are never contented. It’s almost like nothing is never enough. This mainstream ideology has brought us to our current dilemma of being on the brink of self-destruction. We have ignored environmental problems for long enough, neglecting the fact that we are all to blame for what’s about to go down. Don’t let the plastic-eating bacteria do all the clean-ups for our mess. We are the ones in-charge here after all.
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iBan Plastic Team