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Bacteria feast on plastic

Microbes that munch on polyethylene terephthalate could be used to biodegrade this popular polymer

by Bethany Halford
March 10, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 11

Credit: Shutterstock
More than 45 million metric tons of PET are produced each year.
Credit: Shutterstock
More than 45 million metric tons of PET are produced each year.

A tiny microbe one day could devour the millions of metric tons of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, that pile up in landfills each year. Researchers in Japan have discovered the world’s first PET-eating bacterium, a critter that uses PET as its major carbon and energy source.

Each year, plastic manufacturers pump out more than 45 million metric tons of PET to make water bottles, salad domes, peanut butter jars, and other products—all of which sport a stamp with the number one inside a recycle symbol.

PET is the most recycled plastic in the U.S., according to PETRA, the PET Resin Association. But recycling rates still only reach about 31% nationwide. The European Union does better, recycling roughly half of its PET. Even so, tens of millions of metric tons of the plastic wind up in landfills each year, where the polymer’s strong ester bonds resist breakdown.

To find microbes that could pull PET apart, a team led by Kohei Oda of Kyoto Institute of Technology and Kenji Miyamoto of Keio University screened 250 sediment, soil, wastewater, and activated sludge samples from a PET bottle recycling facility in Sakai, Japan. After some careful microbial sleuthing, they found one bacterium that thrived on PET films and named it Ideonella sakaiensis after the city where it was found (Science 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6359).

PET can be hydrolyzed to its monomers chemically, but this process can be slow and usually requires high temperatures and pressures. Fungi that can break down PET have been identified previously, but the bacterium identified by Oda and Miyamoto’s group appears to be more efficient than these. In fact, I. sakaiensis dices up polymer at a surprisingly mild 30 °C.

The researchers further found that I. sakaiensis uses one enzyme, which they call a PETase, to break the plastic down into the intermediate mono(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalic acid, or MHET. Another enzyme, dubbed MHETase, hydrolyzes the MHET into the monomers terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. The scientists think this enzymatic machinery could one day remediate PET-contaminated environments or reclaim the plastic’s starting materials, which at present are derived from petroleum.

“This could provide huge savings in the production of new polymer without the need for petrol-based starting materials,” notes Uwe T. Bornscheuer, an enzyme catalysis expert at the University of Greifswald, in a commentary that accompanies the paper.

At the moment I. sakaiensis and its enzymes need some tweaking before they’re ready to chow down on the world’s PET waste. The bacterium prefers to dine on amorphous PET, rather than the crystalline PET used in products, and the enzymes work too slowly to be used industrially.

The study’s first author, Shosuke Yoshida of Keio University, says that a PET pretreatment that would enlarge the polymer’s amorphous areas would make waste more appetizing for the bacterium. Also, he notes, it might be possible to engineer the enzymes to make them faster and more practical.

This article has been translated into Spanish by and can be found here.

Plastic snack
Credit: Science
Two enzymes help a newly discovered bacterium, seen here in a micrograph, break down PET.


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Andy K (March 10, 2016 6:25 PM)
Biodegradation of PET will reduce the volume of waste PET but the PET will be converted to carbon dioxide, which is the main problem in global warming. It can be argued that it is better to leave the PET in un-degraded state rather than biodegrade it and make global warming worse.

Recycling is the best approach, but we can't recycle everything. So what is worse, PET in landfills or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
Anthony (March 13, 2016 7:41 AM)
Andy, the article states that PET is degraded into the monomers shown.
There is no CO2 formed it's a hydrolysis reaction, formed by adding a water molecule across an ester linkage.
Alex (March 10, 2017 1:06 PM)
CO2 is released during the hydrolysis once terephthalic acid is degraded. Check out the diagram in the URL below.

Angel (May 24, 2017 1:47 AM)
Your url is just the search for ideonella sakaiensis. It does not really provide much information for your argument. If you could go further into detail as to how CO2 actually comes from this process. Thank you
Jainaba Tuffile (March 11, 2016 8:52 PM)
Hi! This seems like a really bad idea with a lot of potentially dangerous unintended consequences. It seeks like there could be a lot of easier, safer solutions. I don't know enough about this, would love to learn more and would appreciate hearing from anyone about this topic, especially, if they could explain to me why this is not a dangerous idea. Thank you.
Edgar (March 14, 2016 3:47 AM)
Suppose we could train these bacteries to do their enzymatic work in a reactor, and subsequently extract the monomers from the reactor. Instead of CO2, it would generate monomers as feedstock for new PET production. A realistic idea?
Jon Harper (March 14, 2016 4:07 PM)
The process for recycling PTA is not difficult in principle. Simply heat the PET to very high temperature under pressure with water. On cooling the terephthalic acid will precipitate (and can be separated by filtration or centrifugation) and the glycol portion will stay with the water (and can be separated by distillation). The problem with recycling PET, as with a lot of recycling is the energy required to gather the PET bottles, shirts, carpets, etc. into one place for processing.
eddie (March 23, 2017 10:38 AM)
Hi I have been interested in bacterial and fungal consumption for years.Being a keen compost maker, I have put various materials through series of compost heaps and observed the process of decay ,in an informal way. II would love to up my game in this area. What should I be reading, and what type of equipment should I be investing in?
Dharinisundar (July 5, 2017 10:12 AM)
can this bacteria helps in producing biofuel from waste plastic??

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