British and American scientists announced that they accidentally created a mutant enzyme which is extremely efficient at breaking down one of the world’s most popular plastics, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. PET is one of the hardest substances for waste management departments to deal with, it can take more than 400 years to degrade.

The enzyme is a mutant form of a bacteria discovered by Japanese scientists in 2016 that can “eat” plastic, a breakthrough in itself. The highly efficient mutant enzyme was made while scientists from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. were examining the bacteria discovered by the Japanese scientists.

The mutant enzyme is even more efficient than the original Japanese bacteria at breaking down plastic, suggesting to scientists there is room to further improve such an enzyme. “This unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics,” said John McGeehan, one of the lead scientists on the project.

After making the discovery, the scientists published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last Monday. The scientists announced they will work to improve the enzyme so that it can one day be used throughout the world in order to control and reduce the amount of waste and pollution which is caused by plastic.

This could be revolutionary as plastic is increasingly becoming one of the most dangerous sources of pollution. Throughout the world, more than 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute.  Most of these bottles are made from PET. As a result of a shortage of space to dump plastics and bottles, about 8 million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans every year and this sadly results in marine life being killed and the oceans becoming polluted.

While PET is extremely slow to degrade, it is easily recyclable. However, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 7% of plastic bottles are actually recycled. While the breakthrough is promising, Wim Soetaert who serves as the head of Industrial Biotechnology Centre at the University of Ghent has suggested that it is nowhere near a solution to the pollution crisis.

He said: “These enzymes are not abundantly present in nature, so you would need to produce the enzyme first, then add it to the PET plastic to degrade it,”

“This is likely to be a slow process. If you have gone through the trouble of collecting the PET waste, then there are clearly far better ways to recycle it or burn it for energy.” He suggested the use of commercially available biodegradable bioplastics would be a better bet.

The mutant enzyme is still an exciting and revolutionary discovery that could have a significant impact on plastic pollution.

 

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