A plastic-eating enzyme discovered by accident could help ease one of the world’s worst pollution problems once it can be applied on an industrial scale.
Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Britain’s University of Portsmouth made the discovery while studying a microbe that could degrade plastic bottles, CNN reported.
They said an enzyme which showed up at a Japanese recycling plant could digest polyethylene terephthalate, PET, which was patented as a plastic in the 1940s and appears in millions of tons of plastic waste entering the ocean each year.
The problem was that the microbe found in the soil in Japan was not able to work fast enough to solve plastic recycling on an industrial scale, but researchers may have solved this after accidentally engineering an enzyme that can.
“We originally set out to determine how this enzyme evolved from breaking down cutin — the waxy substance on the surface of plants — with cutinase, to degrading synthetic PET with PETase,” said NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe.
“But we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics.”
This new discovery could present a recycling solution for the plastic problem facing the world today.
According to figures obtained by The Guardian, a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, with the number expected to increase by 20 percent by 2021.
NREL estimates that about eight million metric tons of plastic waste, including PET bottles, enter the oceans each year, creating huge man-made islands of garbage.
Adding weight to those statistics, experts believe that by 2050 there will be as much plastic waste in the ocean by mass as there are fish.
The researchers are now focusing their efforts on improving the enzyme so that it may be able to industrially break down plastics in a fraction of the time.
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