Published in the U.S. academic journal Science on March 11, the feat was achieved by researchers at the Kyoto Institute of Technology (KIT), Keio University and other institutions.
The prevailing theory had been that polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a synthetic resin widely used in various plastic products, is not a biodegradable material. Despite this, the scientists went on a quest to find microorganisms that decompose the material and collected soil samples from sites that contain PET particles, such as at plastic bottle recycling plants.
When the samples were cultivated in test tubes containing films of PET, the researchers found a colony of microorganisms that fed on the polymer.
The team successfully extracted from it a bacterium that grows by breaking down the plastic material. It gave the organism the name Ideonella sakaiensis, as it was discovered in soil samples found in Sakai.
Analysis of the genetic information on the enzymes of the bacteria found that they favored PET as a food source and had the ability to break down the material efficiently at room temperature. Eventually, the petroleum-derived material decomposed into carbon dioxide and water.
“If we can make use of the bacterium, we will be able to realize a recycling method that can be practiced with minimal energy and is also eco-friendly,” said Kohei Oda, a professor emeritus of applied biology at KIT who was part of the study group.
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