Scientists have created an enzyme that can digest plastic

Bottled Water Craze Outpaces Recycling Efforts
Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

In 2014, Americans discarded about 33.6 million tons of plastic, and only 9.5 percent of it was recycled. Which is a shame (to put it lightly). Plastic can last for centuries, polluting the oceans, harming marine life and contaminating our water supply. In fact, there’s a mass of floating garbage in the North Pacific that’s estimated to be bigger than Alaska, and which contains at least 79,000 tons of plastic. But a major breakthrough in the quest to eliminate plastic waste has recently been found — completely by accident.

Scientists have discovered a mutant enzyme that can eat up and decompose common plastic, which could lead to a potential solution for one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems. The research was led by teams at the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).” So how was this discovery accidental?

In 2016, scientists discovered the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic at a waste dump in Japan. When they tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, they inadvertently made the molecule better at breaking down PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, commonly used for soft drink and water bottles.

plastic waste photo
Getty Images | Agung Parameswara

The enzyme begins breaking down plastic within days, and scientists believe it can be optimized over the next few years to work up to 1,000 times faster. The potential implications of this finding are profound.

“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research, told The Guardian. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”

Researchers hope this discovery will be a jumping off point for further findings that will be part of an overall solution to the problem of plastic pollution.

“This research is just the beginning and there is much more to be done in this area. I am delighted to be part of an international team that is tackling one of the biggest problems facing our planet,” the paper’s lead author, Harry Austin, said in a statement.

Curiosity, Science & Nature
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About the Author
Kate Streit
Kate Streit lives in Chicago. She enjoys stand-up comedy, mystery novels, memoirs, summer and pumpkin spice anything. Visit Scripps News to see more of Kate's work.

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