Science is weird, isn’t it? One minute you’re looking for alternative methods of creating renewable energy and the next you’ve accidentally created an enzyme which devours plastic.
The last one isn’t even an exaggeration, two years ago researchers came across a ‘mutant plastic-eating bacteria’ which evolved from a dumping ground in Japan.
Honestly, it sounds like the original plotline from a Japanese anime, but farfetched as it sounds it’s 100 per cent legitimate.
Since the initial discovery, scientists have now managed to control the bacteria’s awesome powers by ‘accidentally’ creating an enzyme which can eat through the plastic at a more effective rate.
This has to lead the scientific community to believe this newly created enzyme (which, keep in mind was a mistake) can solve the plastic pollution problem which is currently devasting Earth’s oceans.
Professor John McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Portsmouth says:
Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s, huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world.
We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’, must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.
The plastic-hungry enzyme was accidentally created when researchers from the university and the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory were examining the structure of the original Japanese bacteria’s enzyme.
In the process of their investigation, the team inadvertently engineered an enzyme which was far more efficient at eating through plastic, a material which normally takes hundreds of years to break down.
While we should be cautious of a plastic-eating enzyme, which has spawned out of nowhere, it’s not the worst mistake science has ever made.
Professor McGeehan went on to say:
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.
According to IFL Science! the enzyme is known as Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 (an unforgettable name if there ever was one – let’s just call it Ideonella shall we?), it is able to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a widely used form of plastic. It’s used to make plastic drinks bottles and food packaging.
Ideonella also breaks down polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a substitute for PET plastics which is often used as a replacement for glass beer bottles.
Professor McGeehan states:
The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes currently 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.
While it may be an accident it’s still welcome news for the environment because at its current rate mankind continues to consume and waste about 311 million tonnes of plastic every year.
It is predicted by 2050 plastic waste in the oceans will outweigh the entire population of fish.