Scientists accidentally created a 'plastic-eating' enzyme

This happy lab-accident led to a great discovery

May 6, 2018

Plastic has been generating a lot of discussions lately, and rightly so. With 1,000,000 plastic bottles produced every minute, concerned individuals, governments, and companies have been exploring ways to minimize its production, consumption, and impact.

Some countries are beginning to ban or tax plastic, start-ups and corporations alike are finding creative solutions to reusing plastic waste, and many active citizens are reducing or eliminate its consumption altogether. But plastic has a lot of benefits too, and reaching a completely plastic-free world may take a while. Another, perhaps more practical solution may be to integrate plastic-eating enzymes into the picture.

That’s right, researchers at the University of Portsmouth in the UK have accidentally stumbled upon a “mutant enzyme” that can break down plastic 20 percent more efficiently than its natural form. The bacteria that produce this enzyme was originally discovered by Japanese scientists in 2016.

These researchers discovered that the bacteria, called Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, could break down low-grade plastic within 6 weeks. Structural biologist John McGeehan and his team are taking the research further, and exploring methods to genetically alter the enzyme so that the biodegradation process begins within a few days!

Without intervention, polyester typically takes centuries to degrade, and is, therefore, a major source of pollution, especially in our oceans. McGeehan and his team see incredible application possibilities for this discovery. They are interested in developing the enzyme to break down plastic back into its original components.

This would enable us to recycle a plastic (also known as PET) bottle back into another PET bottle, therefore eliminating the need to manufacture with raw materials, to begin with. Plastic is made out of oil, so by recycling all of our used PET products, we prevent the extraction of fossil fuels.

In conjunction with other solutions being developed every day, an enzyme like this has incredible potential to help solve our global plastic waste problem, thus ushering us into a cleaner, post-waste era.

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HILLA BENZAKEN, CONTRIBUTOR
Hilla Benzaken is a dedicated optimist. Her happy place involves cooking, acting, gardening, and fighting for social justice. She writes about all things sustainability, innovation, and DIY.

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