Bacteria are everywhere. Therefore, it’s a safe assumption that they should also be present in plastic recycle factories. With this line of reasoning Japanese researchers took 250 soil samples in the piles of waste and the wastewater of a recycle factory in the Japanese city Sakai. There they hoped to find a microbe, which, after years of inhabiting the plastic pool, had naturally evolved the ability to digest plastic (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET to be exact).
In recent years scientists already discovered plastic, mainly polyurethane, eating larvae and fungi, but they never witnessed this appetite for plastic in bacteria. The novel species of bacteria called Ideonella sakaiensis degrades PET with enzymes (of which two have been identified), which have never been spotted in organisms before. Although, the digestive process is slow - it takes about six weeks for the bacteria to fully digest a thin foil of PET, and twenty times that to make a plastic bottle disappear - the discovery can have important consequences on PET recycling.
With the bacteria plastic digesting genes in their hands scientists can modify the process to make it more efficient. Bacteria are generally easier to integrate in devices than fungi, perhaps the heavy machinery in recycling factories of today will turn to microorganisms in the future.