Environment ‘We are just getting started’: the plastic-eating bacteria that could change the world

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When a microbe was found munching on a plastic bottle in a rubbish dump, it promised a recycling revolution. Now scientists are attempting to turbocharge those powers in a bid to solve our waste crisis. But will it work?

In 2001, a group of Japanese scientists made a startling discovery at a rubbish dump. In trenches packed with dirt and waste, they found a slimy film of bacteria that had been happily chewing through plastic bottles, toys and other bric-a-brac. As it broke down the trash, the bacteria harvested the carbon in the plastic for energy, which it used to grow, move and divide into even more plastic-hungry bacteria. Even if not in quite the hand-to-mouth-to-stomach way we normally understand it, the bacteria was eating the plastic.

The scientists were led by Kohei Oda, a professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology. His team was looking for substances that could soften synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, which is made from the same kind of plastic used in most beverage bottles. Oda is a microbiologist, and he believes that whatever scientific problem one faces, microbes have probably already worked out a solution. “I say to people, watch this part of nature very carefully. It often has very good ideas,” Oda told me recently.

What Oda and his colleagues found in that rubbish dump had never been seen before. They had hoped to discover some micro-organism that had evolved a simple way to attack the surface of plastic. But this bacteria was doing much more than that – it appeared to be breaking down plastic fully and processing it into basic nutrients. From our vantage point, hyperaware of the scale of plastic pollution, the potential of this discovery seems obvious. But back in 2001 – still three years before the term “microplastic” even came into use – it was “not considered a topic of great interest”, Oda said. The preliminary papers on the bacteria his team put together were never published.

 
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  • The Helper The Helper:
    I found his email and emailed him but have not heard back. I dont like it
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    Ohhh, I just came back from the airport. I'm so sorry. I was completely off grid since I left to Taiwan.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    Here's what happened. The earthquake happened while I was high above Hawaii.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    After landing, I got news that a big earthquake struck. Since I'm only there in Taiwan for a week, I figured the best option I have is to make sure my family is safe, and that we are all good to go from there.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    I didn't get any phone service plans because I am mainly visiting my family and staying indoors. Well, the earthquake made me forgot to go get phone service.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    And then a few days later, just north from my family, there was a giant plastic industrial complex that caught on fire, with the blaze burning for 1.5 days.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    There was some air pollution and smog outside.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    We did our Ching Ming Festival indoors with my father's family side, and occassionally traveling down southward to visit some farmlands, and paying a visit to my grandmother and my uncle on my mother's side.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    The whole trip was quite hectic, with occasional afterquakes throughout the week. This whole time, I completely forgot about giving updates on TH. :p Again, sorry for the lack of communications.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    As for Github, I often frequent there, boasting about my genetic algorithm for tools-assisted speedrunning and such. I'm also pretty active on Discord, with my tag @asperatology.
  • tom_mai78101 tom_mai78101:
    Yeah, the whole earthquake + air pollution combo made me completely forget about bringing updates. I'll be sure to keep on top of things after all things are less requiring my attentions.
    +2
  • The Helper The Helper:
    I am just glad that you are OK Tom! Thank you for the update!
  • Varine Varine:
    Glad to hear you're okay! I only knew about your Github cuz I tried to follow some of you when I was learning how to program, but didn't understand any of it so kind of quit paying attention to what anyone does on it
  • The Helper The Helper:
    Freaking storm outside is kicking!
  • Blackveiled Blackveiled:
    I wouldn't know, I'm in Joliet, Illinois right now working. I left Houston area about 2 weeks ago lol
  • Blackveiled Blackveiled:
    Not permanently of course, just a temporary job.
    +1
  • jonas jonas:
    Glad you're ok @tom_mai78101
  • jonas jonas:
    @Blackveiled you know another word for permanent? temporary
    +1
  • Varine Varine:
    Briefly, he'll only be there for the interim. Like a stopgap of sorts, he'll be back home in short time
  • O Old Mountain Shadow:
    Hurray! Tom has reappeared!
  • The Helper The Helper:
    Happy Thursday!
  • Blackveiled Blackveiled:
    Yep. Just another fun night at work.

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