The worldwide team involved in researching how the bacterium developed, exactly, did so by messing with the enzyme it uses to break down PET (the polymer used in plastic bottles) and in so doing created a mutated version that breaks down plastic even more efficiently.
Do you believe that this mutant enzyme is the solution to our global plastic problem?
Professor McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: "The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels - the technology exists and it's well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET and potentially other substrates like PEF, PLA, and PBS, back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled". "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment".
But this new finding suggests a way to turn plastic bottles back into plastic bottles.
The discovery could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of PET, which now persists for hundreds of years in the environment, the University of Portsmouth said on its website. The modified enzyme can destroy PET plastic in just a few days.
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"The Diamond Light Source recently created one of the most advanced X-ray beamlines in the world and having access to this facility allowed us to see the 3-D atomic structure of PETase in incredible detail". Researchers hope to produce the enzyme at industrial levels and spray large swath of plastic pollution. The team inadvertently manipulated the enzyme to make it even more efficient in breaking down PET.
A Japanese waste dump is an unlikely location for what may be a huge breakthrough in the plastics pollution crisis. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not. "We were thrilled to learn that PETase works even better on PEF than on PET", said Beckham.
Other types of plastic could be broken down by bacteria currently evolving in the environment, McGeehan said: "People are now searching vigorously for those".
McGeehan worked with researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "The enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large quantities by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a chemistry expert at the University of Melbourne. And obviously, reducing the production and use of single-use plastics in the first place can't be emphasized enough.
Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, agreed the enzyme could be useful but added: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions". "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".