Published: Wed, April 18, 2018
Economy | By Melissa Porter

Scientists Accidentally Create A Plastic-Eating Enzyme

Scientists Accidentally Create A Plastic-Eating Enzyme

The enzymes can get through plastic in just days compared to the centuries it takes for the resistant PET to breakdown in landfills or oceans.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is the hard plastic used majorly in bottles and other disposables, takes around 100 years to decompose in the environment.

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said John McGeehan, a biology professor at the University of Portsmouth and one of the lead scientists on the research. "It's great and a real finding", McGeehan added.

"This unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics". The newly discovered enzyme promises to recycle plastic bottles back into new clear plastic bottles, which would require much less virgin plastic. "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment", McGeehan was quoted as saying.

The new find raised many questions for scientists as the speedy evolution behind the bacterium's drive to break down plastics was nothing short of noteworthy.

Laura Winningham, CEO of hunger relief charity City Harvest London, called the discovery a "truly exciting development", adding that the enzyme could "complement [the charity's] work and make a tremendous environmental difference".

The new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, began by determining the precise structure of the enzyme produced by the Japanese bug.

Independent of the U.S. DOE and United Kingdom work, researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology were studying the natural enzyme's structure and they too claimed they found a way to improve its PET degradation potential.

While the invention of highly durable plastics has had positive impacts for humankind's quality of life, it's that very durability that is causing the plastics pollution problem.

Last year The Guardian reported that 1 million plastic bottles are sold each minute. PET has only been widely used since the 1970s, so the bacterium had evolved at breakneck speed to use the new food source.

Scientists say they are now working to improve the enzyme so that it works on a large scale.

The researchers of the study said the discovery could help combat the world's plastic problem. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not. The improvement was modest, but the scientists believe bigger improvements are possible by modifying the protein portion of the enzyme. But while manipulating the enzyme, the global team inadvertently improved its ability to devour plastic.

McGeehan worked with researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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