Are the answers to many of our problems hanging out under a microscope lens? First we saw Hendrik "Henk" Jonkers finding bacteria that can repair concrete, and now a group of microbiologists in Japan have found bacteria that will eat plastic. Specifically, PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the stuff most drink bottles are made from).
According to Live Science, researcher Kohei Oda, an applied microbiologist at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, claims that "The bacterium is the first strain having a potential to degrade PET completely into carbon dioxide and water."
The scientists identified a new species of bacteria, which they named Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, that could almost completely break down a thin film of PET after six weeks at a temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). Appendages from the cells might have secreted compounds that helped to dissolve the plastic, the researchers said.
Note that the phrase "might have" is used above. The researchers have no idea what caused the bacteria to evolve these handy enzymes, and they reportedly discovered this bacteria by sifting through "250 samples of PET debris from soil and wastewater from a plastic-bottle-recycling site." Additionally the actual research paper, presented in this week's Science, says "Bacteria isolated from outside a bottle-recycling facility can break down and metabolize plastic."
That initially struck me as strange, that they just happened to find this magical bacteria right outside of a recycling facility; it seems rather like discovering the cure for cancer in the parking lot of a hospital. Then it dawned on me that a recycling facility whose soil is polluted with wastewater is probably the only location to observe bacteria coming into contact with gobs of the stuff.
If their discovery pans out, it points to a rather bizarre possibility: That nature can actually evolve to clean up some of our unnatural messes. Environmentalists might actually prefer not to hear that, as it might embolden climate-change deniers into feeling that we can do whatever we want, and that the planet will just take care of it.