Scientists have accidently developed a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks. The accidental break through could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles.
The new bacterium was found eating plastic at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.
Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research said, ‘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 international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said. “It’s great and a real finding.”
The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.