Humankind destroys; nature repairs. Evolution throws up many surprises where adaptation by species
helps to sustain our one and only (as yet) habitable planet. Thoughtless progress and to some extent greed, the need for instant solutions and of course newer and newer inventions in the name of progress have brought about many changes in the ecology of our planet.
Plastics have their importance in our day to day lives. They are present almost everywhere and are used
in countless industries. They definitely making packaging easier, transporting equipment and food
lighter and more economical and cooking (microwave) feasible; however, the indiscriminate use of
plastic on a large scale has polluted our planet. The amount of non biodegradable plastic is high. It clogs
landfills, oceans and some of it becomes an unhealthy part of the diet of land creatures as well.
Solutions have been looked at by well meaning scientists for a long time, but it has always been the
case that the amount of plastic produced far exceeds the amount that is recycled or degraded to form
Japanese researchers have recently come up with a solution to our plastic epidemic. They have discovered microbes, a bacterium, that not just feeds on PET but also breaks it down using two enzymes. This is indeed a much needed fillip in the fight to save our planet from the deluge of plastic. The team of
scientists, of the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan, led by Yoshida et al has identified this
microorganism as Ideonella Sakaiensis. These bacteria were isolated outside a plastic recycling facility.
The bacteria first link themselves to the PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) with tendril like threads. Then
two enzymes are used to sequentially breakdown the plastic into terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol,
two substances used in their manufacturing process. These compounds are harmless and are
environmentally safe. The bacteria proceed to digest these compounds; usefully getting rid of plastics
and making the environment clean. They can also reconstitute the starting materials making recycling a
Currently the process is slow and full degradation takes a long time. A lot of improvement on the
efficiency of the bacterium through sustained research will make this a feasible option in future. Nature
is indeed a provider of boundless bounties. Considering the fact that plastic evolved around 70 years
ago, it is indeed a positive sign for humankind that nature has evolved in such a way as to provide
solutions to mitigate pollutants on earth.
Perhaps we can look forward to a day when it will be easy to degrade plastics by just adding these
bacteria to landfills and let them do their magic and give us a clean environment.