When Science Catches Up with Fiction

When I was writing my novel, The Rest Is Silence – a story that deals, in part, with the genetic engineering of a bacterium that eats plastic – I figured that the technical aspects eventually would be undermined by new scientific discoveries. In my book, Benny is a young molecular geneticist who engineers a bacterium that can use polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as its sole source of carbon. What would happen if this ubiquitous plastic (and others) started to be degraded? What would it mean for the world we’ve created?

We might be closer to finding out. This month brings an encouraging report in Science from Japanese researchers who isolated Ideonella sakaiensis from a recycling plant. This bacterium digests PET into the monomers that are used to create it artifically in the first place: ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid.

This is significant because it points the way for a means to biodegrade the more than 50 million tonnes of PET that are manufactured annually, most of which is never recycled. You might be forgiven for not knowing what that amount of garbage looks like. Well, a tiny fraction of it looks something like this.

Asian coastal region

Image from PlasticFreeSeas.org

And an even tinier fraction – a few grams – looks like this.

Image thanks to PlasticFreeSeas.org

Image thanks to PlasticFreeSeas.org

Benny would be pleased – as am I – to see that her research has been repeated in the real world.

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