Last week researchers from Portsmouth University may have found the answer to the plastic pollution crisis facing our planet, after they accidentally created a plastic-eating enzyme. Could this breakthrough mean we start winning the fight against plastic?
The breakthrough came when researchers were attempting to alter a naturally occuring bacteria discovered in a Japanese recycling centre. The bacteria found in the centre had managed to evolve, gaining the ability to digest plastic using a naturally occuring enzyme called PETase.
With this discovery, the researchers placed the bacteria under intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell. The chamber accelerates electrons at enormous speeds to produce rays that are 10 billion times brighter than the sun. This enables the researchers to look at the fine structure of materials and biomolecules, down to the level of individual atoms.
It was in this chamber that the accidental discovery occurred. They did in fact believe the mutation would make the enzyme slower, by altering a few amino acids within the enzyme. However, they ended up making it faster with a much improved ability to digest polyethylene terephthalate or PET, the most widely used material in millions of plastic bottles and containers around the globe.
However, the accidental improvement of the enzyme is just the start, as the researchers who made this breakthrough are sure that they can now improve the enzyme’s capability even further to create an optimised version able to quickly digest plastic back into it’s original form.
Lead scientist Professor John McGeehan, from the University of Portsmouth, said, “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 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 (plastic) substrates back to their original building blocks, so that they can be sustainably recycled.”
Gallons of the powdered enzyme could be created and poured into vats of plastic, helping to reduce the time it takes to break them down astronomically.