plastic bottles

Japanese scientists have created an enzyme that eats away at plastic bottle waste

Japanese scientists have accidentally created a mutant enzyme that eats away at plastic bottles, it has been revealed.

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.

The scientists then made changes to the enzyme to track its evolution and they accidentally discovered that they had created a molecule that was even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles.

Within a few days, the enzyme started to break down the plastic, whereas it would usually take a few centuries to break down plastic bottles naturally.

However, the scientists hope that they can make further improvements to the enzyme and speed up the time it takes to work.

Lead scientist Professor John McGeehan, from the University of Portsmouth, said: “Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research, and our discovery here is no exception.

“Although the improvement is modest, 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.

“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 (plastic) substrates back to their original building blocks, so that they can be sustainably recycled.”

Currently, the scientists are exploring the possibility of transplanting the mutant enzyme into an “extremophile bacteria” that can survive temperatures above 70C, at which point PET changes from a glassy to a viscous state, making it likely to degrade 10-100 times faster.

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