Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a material used in plastic bottles and many other products, including clothing, furnishings, and solar panels. The material’s widespread usage has created a massive global plastic waste problem. PET does not break down easily, and an estimated 8 million tons of it ends up in the oceans annually. Recent discoveries by microbiologists around the world, however, have revealed that bacteria and fungi could one day provide a way to consume the waste material.

5 Bacteria Cooperate To Eat PET

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A biology student at Reed College studied bacteria on plastic collected from Galveston Bay in Texas for her thesis. She cultured various bacteria on plastic and eventually discovered that some were consuming the plastic. Subsequent research eventually isolated a group of five bacteria that worked together to chop and consume PET.

A grant from the National Science Foundation is now funding more research. The bacteria have adapted to PET as a food source. They produce various hydrolase enzymes that breakdown the complex polymer molecules within PET.

Fungi Can Degrade Plastic

Fungi have been useful in cleaning up oils and pesticides in a process called mycoremediation. Recent discoveries have created hope that fungi will aid the process of cleaning up plastic waste. Scientists identified a fungus at a plastic waste disposal site in Islamabad, Pakistan, that degraded plastic. In China, researchers confirmed that a fungus was digesting polyester polyurethane. At a polluted lake in Switzerland, four strains of fungi were found to degrade plastics.

Image description: ‘Bottle Buyology’ at the Minnesota State Fair ‘Eco Experience’ Building. Credit: Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States

Bacteria and fungal consumption of plastic, however, remains in the realm of small-scale research. Even if developed for industrial applications, this process may never overcome the massive plastic waste problem faced by the world. Ultimately, alternative materials that can biodegrade after use present the best option in the opinion of many sustainability experts.

What do you think? Does industry need to limit the use of plastic?

ABOUT Reed College

Founded in 1908 in southeast Portland, Oregon, Reed College is a coeducational, independent liberal arts and sciences college. Referred to as one of the most intellectual colleges in the country, Reed is known for its high standards of scholarly practice, creative thinking, and engaged citizenship.

Reed students pursue a bachelor of arts degree in 40 majors and programs. The curriculum includes a year-long humanities course, broad distribution requirements, and a senior thesis. A 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio and small conference-style classes allow faculty members to truly mentor students and engage with them in individual discussions. Reed also offers a graduate program leading to a master of arts degree in liberal studies.

ABOUT The National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” NSF is vital because we support basic research and people to create knowledge that transforms the future. This type of support:

  • Is a primary driver of the U.S. economy.
  • Enhances the nation’s security.
  • Advances knowledge to sustain global leadership.

With an annual budget of $8.5 billion (FY 2021), we are the funding source for approximately 25 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.

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