Japanese researchers recently discovered a microorganism that literally eats plastic. The bacterium, now named Ideonella sakaiensis, has been proven to completely break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common type of plastic used in bottles and other containers. That type of plastic makes up a huge proportion of all the plastic waste in the world, particularly in the ocean, and now, scientists are investigating whether the hungry little bug can be used to recycle plastic and reduce pollution.

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The bacterium uses a pair of enzymes to break down PET and turn it into a food source – much the same as the way other animals’ bodies (including humans) use enzymes to break down other types of food. Problem is, it takes up to six weeks for the bacterium to completely breakdown a small, low-grade sample of PET. If they were able to ‘eat’ higher quality plastics, it would take much, much longer. Microbiologist Kohei Oda of the Kyoto Institute of Technology co-authored the study published this week in the journal Science, and he told PBS NewsHour he was “very surprised to find microorganisms that degrade PET” because the plastic has always been thought to be non-biodegradable.

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Related: The oceans face a scary new threat: plastic-filled plankton poop

Researchers found the bacterium because they were searching for it. During a study of 250 PET samples collected from recycling facilities in Osaka, Japan, the scientists were looking for clues to explain how the plastics broke down over time. Of the samples showing more advanced signs of degradation, researchers discovered I. sakaiensis and have been studying it in a lab setting.

PET reportedly has the highest recycling rate of all plastics, yet nearly half the plastic products produced with PET are not recycled. PET is common in single-use water bottles, but also in other food packaging like clear salad containers, peanut butter jars, and potato chip bags. Other scientists studying plastic degradation are paying attention, as this breakthrough may be the first step in a long journey to addressing the huge problem of ocean plastic. With remedial efforts like the Ocean Cleanup Array close to launch, it seems there may be hope after all for eventually recycling some of the plastic waste cluttering up the environment.

Via The Verge

Images via Kohei Oda/Kyoto Institute of Technology and US Army Corps of Engineers