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.