Scientists Have ‘Accidentally Engineered’ An Enzyme That Can Eat Plastic

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A new hope has dawned on the horizon of the world’s fight against its severe plastic pollution problem.


Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have announced through press releases that the team has unintentionally developed a plastic-eating enzyme, which will hopefully tackle the major pollution issue.

The discovery occurred while the team was studying the structure of a natural enzyme, sourced several years back from a waste recycling center in Japan.

According to the team, the enzyme ‘Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6’ can break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that is commonly found in millions of plastic bottles around the world.

NREL’s lead researcher Gregg Beckham explained inside an interview with CNN that while attempting to learn more about the enzyme’s structure for protein engineering, the team unknowingly went a step further and “accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics.”

In addition to “eating” PET, the enzyme can also reduce polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based but non-biodegradable substitute for PET plastics that can replace glass beer bottles.

The breakthrough finding was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. The team is currently working on enhancing the enzyme further so that it can be used industrially to digest plastic in a fraction of the time.

The urgency behind the project comes as a main priority, seeing as how “[e]xperts estimate that by 2050, there will be as much waste plastic in the ocean by mass as there are fish,” warns NREL.

Should this enzyme succeed, perhaps the ‘Trash Isles’—a real life country-sized trash island that has become an official nation with its own passport and currency—will forever become a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, major brands continue to combat the plastic problem. McDonald’s UK is saying goodbye to plastic straws across its restaurants, while Starbucks has launched a US$10 million plan to reinvent its cup packaging.

[via CNN, main image via Shutterstock]
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