Corporations and retailers are wrapping everything from avocados to t-shirts in throwaway plastic packaging that eventually finds its way into our oceans, all in the name of convenience. Whats worse, we know that more than 90% of the plastics ever created have not been recycled; theres simply too much plastic for us to recycle away the problem.
The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic and experts have said that they're confident the process can be accelerated even further into a large scale process.
According to John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth, UK who led the research, "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".
"But they ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics", said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed USA journal.
This could revolutionise the recycling process, allowing plastics to be re-used more effectively. But I believe there is a public driver here: "perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these".
The researchers worked with scientists at Diamond Light Source (DLS) in the United Kingdom, deploying a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.
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NREL's Bryon Donohoe and Nic Rorrer punch out coupon samples from a PET bottle to test how effectively the PETase enzyme digests plastic.
Fortuitously produced enzyme eats plastic, which ultimately may help reduce critically intense plastic pollution.
PET persists for hundreds of years in the environment before it degrades and the discovery may mean that significantly more plastic waste could be recycled.
Hypothesising that the PETase enzyme must have evolved in the presence of PET to figure out how to degrade the plastic, the researchers mutated PETase's active site, to see if they could bring it closer to another enzyme, called cutinase. Manipulating the structure to better understand how it worked, they accidentally engineered the mutant enzyme.
The research team also included scientists from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The findings of the team were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
Professor Adisa Azapagic of the University of Manchester, UK, likewise agreed that the enzyme could prove useful, but stated concern that it could lead to other forms of pollution: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions".