We produce 311 million tons of plastic each year, yet just a tenth of that will be sent to a recycling plant. This could help: Japanese scientists say they've discovered the first known bacteria able to break the molecular bonds of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, one of the world's most common forms of plastic. After analyzing 250 sediment samples at a bottle recycling plant in Osaka, researchers stumbled upon a species of bacteria that consumes PET, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 was found to break down the plastic into "two environmentally benign chemicals," Discovery News explains, in a process that takes six weeks and that the researchers think can be accelerated.
The Guardian notes, however, that plastic bottles are made of highly crystallized PET, which the bacteria were slower to eat. Perhaps most interesting is that scientists believe I. sakaiensis 201-F6—described in the journal Science—evolved two enzymes that enable it to decompose PET "in response to the accumulation of the plastic in the environment in the past 70 years," as the Guardian puts it. "If you put a bacteria in a situation where they've only got one food source to consume, over time they will adapt to do that," a microbiologist says. At this stage, though, they can't just let such bacteria loose on the world's plastic heaps. "We have shared the possibility of biological recycling of plastic," says a study author. "We want to develop this discovery into the application. This is the very first step." (This young man has another plan to clean up plastic.)