In 2016 a study showed that a new species of bacteria discovered outside a bottle-recycling facility, could degrade plastic very efficiently. The name of this species is Ideonella sakaiensis. By understanding hot this microorganism degrades plastic we can use its powers to treat contaminated areas in ways that were not possible before.
The way this bacteria hydrolyze PET (polyethylene terephthalate), is very quick and efficient. They synthesize an enzyme that does a great job in degrading PET that is essentially one of the plastics we can not easily get rid of.
Even recently a team of scientists from the UK, found out a way to analyze this enzyme, by using protein crystallography they found out the exact three dimensional structure of the protein and were even able to modify it. This modification ended up improving the performance and speed of the enzyme. The scientists were surprised by the results of this experiment and indeed the results are very promising.
With all scientific advancements though we have to be conscious and investigate the situation thoroughly before taking any drastic measures. At the same time research has to move fast so that we can start undoing the damage we have caused to our own planet.
It is incredible how nature can find ways to deal with even the most extreme conditions. As we mentioned in a recent article about radiation in exclusion zones of Chernobyl, nature can adapt very fast.
Those enzymes could be used in a synthetic solution that is even more effective than that enzyme is today in degrading plastic. The scientists who analysed the enzyme think that there may still be room for improvement in making it even more efficient. So we can see it in the future being used to clean the plastic in the ocean. We can even see a specifically genetically engineered version of this bacteria species made to live in ecosystems where plastic pollution is hard to manage with conventional ways.
Sources: A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate). , New Insights into the Function and Global Distribution of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)-Degrading Bacteria and Enzymes in Marine and Terrestrial Metagenomes
, Protein crystallography and site‐direct mutagenesis analysis of the poly(ethylene terephthalate) hydrolase PETase from Ideonella sakaiensis, Scientists Accidentally Create A Plastic-Eating Enzyme.