Much like Fleming discovering penicillin, scientists looking for an answer for the world’s plastic crisis have accidentally discovered an enzyme which can destroy plastic within a matter of days, rather than the years it takes naturally.
Investigating the structure of a bacterium on a Japanese waste dump, scientists found that with a small mutation, the bug produced an enzyme that would destroy plastic.
At first examination, the enzyme looked like one which would break down cumin, which is a natural polymer used by plants as a protective layer. However, the scientists manipulated it to consume PET, the type of plastic used in drinking bottles.
Professor John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth, who was on the team, said that the discovery was “a bit of a shock.”
It could have a significant impact on the global plastics problem; PET plastics can only be turned into fibres for clothing and carpets, but this enzyme could turn the plastics back into their original components.
“It should reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean,” Prof McGeehan said. McGeehan believes that, like other industrial enzymes, this enzyme could be manipulated to work up to one thousand times faster in just a few years. Potential future uses of the enzyme could be sprayed on the large floating islands of plastic in the ocean to help break them down.
The problem of plastic pollution has been rising in our news feeds, largely thanks to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II.
Scientists have looked at multiple ways to remove the problem of too much plastic in our oceans, from robots to ejecting the waste into space, but this enzyme could provide an entirely new way to remove the plastics which might be a far better option.
It could help with the problem of pollution over the entire planet.