Scientists have accidentally created an enzyme which is capable of breaking down plastic or more specifically the world’s most popular plastic, polyethylene terephthalate or PET for short. Now it had been first discovered in 2016 by Japanese scientists and was the first bacterium that had evolved to eat plastic at a waste dump in Japan.
PET plastics are the most common plastic used for soft drink bottles, this is because it is lightweight, easy to mould and you cannot shatter it. PET in a different form (Flakes) is what is used in clothing, known as polyester. Recycling rates from around the world put it at the following:
USA – 31%
Europe – 48%
Japan – 72%
India – 90%
Whilst scientists at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S had been examining the enzyme produced by the bacteria by shining intense beams of X-rays on it, this allowed them to see the individual atomic structures of the enzyme and by manipulating the structures they accidentally engineered a mutant enzyme.
It only takes the mutant enzyme a few days to start to break down the plastics and scientists are hoping that the enzyme is able to turn plastic into its original product which is oil, this will mean that we will be recycling plastic back to plastic without the need to drill for more oil and should hopefully reduce the amount of plastic on the planet.
Now before we get excited about the breakthrough, although it is worth getting excited about Professor McGeehan said “It is a modest improvement 20% better but that is not the point,” said McGeehan. “It’s incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimised. It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years and make a super-fast enzyme.”
Now, this isn’t the first plastic eating discovery last year (2017) it was discovered that wax moth larvae which are usually used as fish bait actually eat plastic. In lab tests it was discovered that 100 worms could eat 92 milligrams of polyethylene in 12 hours, again this was only discovered by accident, scientist Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain was dealing with a wax worm infestation in one of her beehives she put the worms in a bag, when she returned the worms had escaped by chewing through the bag.
Now all these discoveries should leave people with hope because as the world’s population grows so does the amount of waste produced especially plastic waste and plastic is a major toxic pollutant in the form of the air, water and land pollution.
This often leads to the killing of plant life, posing a danger to local animals even in humans with the discovery of micro-plastics and this is because plastic is designed for durability, not biodegradability.
This discovery does give hope though because as social attitudes towards waste are slowly changing especially plastic waste, hopefully, this enzyme will turn out to be one of the greatest discoveries mankind has ever made, allowing us to safely destroy all plastic litter in the world.