Of plastic and men

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

Nature has extraordinary resources. Here we are trashing her land, sea and atmosphere - and have been for over a century now - with all sorts of chemistry she didn't ask for and which, sooner or later, will prove to be harmful to those who are putting it there. Despite this, sometimes she manages to find ways of twisting something bad into something good. Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET, is one. It is a plastic we have all heard about, man-made and widely used in industry for clothing but also for liquid and food containers, and is frequently shaped into the form of plastic bottles. PET - like other plastics - is piling up on Earth, slowly making its way into ocean sediments and more alarmingly into the food chain. Recently, a team of Japanese researchers discovered a new species of bacterium that has found a way to live off PET thanks to a hydrolase which seems to have evolved especially for this, and has been coined: PETase.

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A little bit of praise!

“I recently stumbled upon your columns. Let me congratulate you on achieving the near impossible, for your articles have enabled me to successfully marry IT with the Life Sciences and better explain the concepts of bioinformatics to those who are not in the know of the field.

Your articles are very well written, lucid, and contain just enough information to excite the reader to want to learn more about the topic being discussed. They fall in a very rare category where they are accessible to everyone, from the undergraduate students to research students who want to have a basic idea of the topics being discussed. Some of your articles, like "Our hollow architecture" and "Throb" are outstanding pieces.

I would highly recommend your articles as a necessary reading in undergrad classes to get students inspired about the various avenues of research.”

— Rohan Chaubal, Senior Researcher in Genomics, July 2011

Thank you to Joanna Barnum whose work we reproduce on our site!