Scientists accidentally create plastic-eating enzyme that could save the world, kind of Advertisement

Scientists accidentally create plastic-eating enzyme that could save the world, kind of

A team of researchers accidentally created a mutant enzyme that eats plastic, hurrah!

By Katie O’Malley  April 18th, 2018

If you’ve ever been at a drinks party and randomly thrown a sh*tload of gin, fruit juice, and the contents of that dodgy bottle on top of the kitchen cupboard into a bowl and inadvertently invented the most delicious – if not lethal – alcoholic beverage ever, you’ll be thrilled with this next story.

The Independent reports a team of scientists, by essentially mixing a load of random things, have accidentally created a substance capable of ‘eating’ plastic that could help tackle the world’s pollution problem.

The new research came about after the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium – dubbed PETase for its ability to break down the PET (polyethylene terephthalat) plastic in drink bottles – that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan.

Scientists from the University of Portsmouth went onto verify the findings and study how PETase had evolved, but accidentally made the molecule even better at breaking down plastic.

‘Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,’ said lead researcher Professor McGeehan.

During an investigation of the enzyme’s structure, the scientists made a slight tweak to the part thought to be involved with plastic digestion. Incidentally, this powered up the enzyme’s ability to degrade PET, and also gave it the ability to degrade an alternative form of PET known as PEF.

‘Although the improvement is modest, 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,’ McGeehan added.

The mutant enzyme reportedly takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in our oceans – but the scientists are hopeful this can be sped up even further and develop into a large-scale process.

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That said, the simply breaking down of larger pieces of plastic into smaller pieces isn’t exactly useful as it can create microplastics (microbeads are a primary type of microplastic previously found in cosmetics), which have been known to damage to marine environments. However, the scientists suggest their new enzyme could be used to make plastic recycling far more effective.

‘This is a potentially very useful technology to support recovery and recycling of plastics,’ said Professor Nilay Shah, a chemical engineer at Imperial College London who was not involved in the work.

The Guardian reports that approximately one million plastic bottles are sold each minute around the globe and, with just 14 per cent recycled, many end up in the oceans where they have polluted, harming marine life and potentially people who eat seafood.

The research was led by postgraduate student Harry Austin, and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So long, plastic!