Hidden in the soil at a plastics recycling plant in Japan a microbe was discovered in 2016 that had evolved to breaking down the plastic bottles that were taking over the habitat. The discovery made international headlines as the bacteria had the ability to digest polyethylene terephthalate.
Plastics (polyethylene terephthalate) only accounts for 10% of man-made waste but has ballooned by six hundred and fifty percent since 1975, reaching alarming 270 million tons in 2010. What makes this such a big conservational issue is that it takes plastics hundreds to thousands of years to degrade. To put that in context, we are still living with every piece of plastic ever manufactured. Research done shows that by 2050 there will be more plastic (by weight) than fish in the ocean.
By accident, scientists have created a mutant enzyme that can break down and digest polyethylene terephthalate (plastic) that would have taken a very long time to degrade. The enzyme is more advanced than the bacteria that was discovered by the Japanese in 2016.
Scientists at the University of Portsmouth along with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory are spending many hours and resources trying to figure out how the bacteria can digest the plastic. The discovery is extremely remarkable, because Plastics (polyethylene terephthalate) is virtually indestructible, making it this most significant risk for our planet. Being able to digest and break down this resilient material makes this mutant enzyme the greatest discovery for ecological redemption.
The mutant enzyme can break down polyethylene terephthalate in a few days, rather than centuries. Researchers are working on licensing the enzyme, so they can develop the full potential of this incredible discovery and will hopefully be able to expand the digestion time so that the enzyme can be used on industrial scale. The enzyme is entirely biodegradable and non-toxic, and when developed it will be able to digest millions of tons of plastic that is currently polluting our planet and oceans.
Quoting Professor McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth,
“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,”
“It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”
“The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes currently being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels – the technology exists, and it’s well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET and potentially other substrates like PEF, PLA, and PBS, back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled.”
“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,”
“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.”
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
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