Scientists unexpectedly create plastic-eating enzyme which can solve pollution problems

  • A recent study on a bacteria discovered in Japan led to the creation of a mutant enzyme that could eat plastic
  • The enzyme is further being developed to industrially break down plastic materials
  • Scientists believe that the discovery could solve the worldwide waste pollution problem

In a recent research conducted in America and Britain, scientists have accidentally come up with an enzyme which is capable of eating plastic. Thus, it is believed to solve the ever-increasing waste pollution, wherein a huge chunk is plastic.

According to Asia One, around eight million tons of plastic are being dumped into the ocean annually. This petroleum-derived product’s toxicity is imposing serious threats on human health and the environment.

Although there are numerous recycling efforts, plastics are among the most persistent wastes. It doesn’t decompose right away, it could be around for hundreds of years in the environment.

These scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory studied a naturally- occurring bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago.

This organism known as Ideonella sakaiensis is believed to have evolved into a waste-recycling bacterium. It seems to feed exclusively on a certain type of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which are commonly used for plastic bottles.

Initially, the researchers’ objective was to study how one of the bacterium’s enzymes called PETase functions, by figuring out its structure. However, they unexpectedly went a step advanced when they engineered an enzyme which could consume PET-made plastics according to the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They have utilized a powerful X-ray, which is 10 billion times brighter than the sun, which allowed them to invent three-dimensional ultra-high-resolution model of the enzyme.

Meanwhile, scholars from the University of South Florida and the University of Campinas in Brazil did computer modeling and found out that the PETase looked similar to cutinase, another enzyme found in fungus and bacteria. The only difference between the two, is that PETase has one property that allowed it to degenerate man-made plastic.

They have decided to alter the PETase for it to be more like cutinase. Surprisingly, the mutant enzyme became a better PET plastic-eating enzyme than the natural PETase.

Eventually, they are developing it now to be used industrially in breaking down plastics. According to John McGeehan, professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth and the author of the study, “Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research, and our discovery here is no exception.”

McGeehan claimed that their discovery could be the solution to the worldwide plastic pollution. Let’s keep our fingers crossed on this!