A group of Japanese researchers from Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keiō University are responsible for the discovery of this bacterium, called Ideonella sakaiensis.
In their research, they aimed to study the biology of bacteria using PET as their primary food source. But after thorough analysis to the 250 samples taken from a PET bottle’s recycling plant, they found that out of all the organisms studied, only a bacterium of the group was able to break down PET.
The “digestive” process required six weeks at 30 degrees Celsius to be able to degrade a small sheet of PET. In fact, it was observed that the bacteria used two different enzymes that in reaction with water could decompose PET into both terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, substances that don’t pose threat to the environment on their own, and on which this bacterium feed.
While the process itself is rather slow, there’s the possibility of transferring the genes that produce these enzymes onto other bacteria that multiply at a faster rate. Furthermore, if the terephthalic acid could be recovered and reused, it would mean that we would not require the use of oil derivatives to produce new plastics.
There is still a long way to go in order achieve that, but this is still excellent news in the path to reducing the environmental impact of a material as widely used in the industry as it is PET.