The new bacteria with an appetite for plastic.

According to a paper published in the journal Nature, scientists have discovered a strain of bacteria that has the ability to digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics.

The existence of the bacteria shows just how rapid bacterial evolution can be; PETs were only invented in the 1940s, so the bacteria must have evolved this ability in just 70 years.

The Japanese researchers who have discovered the bacteria have named it Ideonella sakaiensis. It appears to feed exclusively on PET.

The bacteria may have practical applications; PET is biodegradable, and huge quantities of it have accumulated across the globe, both on land and at sea. The bacteria could be used as part of the recycling process. They currently take a while to degrade PET, but the researchers are already looking at the possibility of using genetic engineering to either modify the bacteria or transfer the genes that produce the PET-degrading enzymes into faster growing bacterium.

A number of news sources have run articles on this discovery:

This topic has links to a number of areas in the science curriculum at GCSE and beyond, for example:

Biology

  • How have the bacteria adapted to their environment? How does the appearance of this bacteria fit in with the principle of natural selection?
  • Research the Gaia hypothesis; does this support it?
  • The bacteria is using two specific enzymes to break down the PET. How do enzymes work?

Chemistry

  • What is PET? How is it made?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of PET?
  • How is PET currently disposed of? What are the problems with this?

If you’re interested in bringing this kind of Cutting Edge Science into the classroom, why not sign up to an RCUK Cutting Edge Science course? The National Science Learning Network, in partnership with Research Councils UK, offer a number of exciting Cutting Edge Science courses designed to help bring Cutting Edge Science into your day to day classroom practice, including courses on related topics such as Biodiversity and Genetics.

All CPD which is part of the Bringing Cutting Edge Science into the Classroom programme qualifies for a bursary of up to £180 per day. Click here for further details: https://www.stem.org.uk/node/36938

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Subject(s)Biology, Chemistry, Science
Age7-11, 11-14, 14-16, 16-19
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