Scientists Made a Super Enzyme That Eliminates Need to Make More Plastic
By Heather Callaghan, Editor
Scientists accidentally created a super enzyme that eats plastic for breakfast…
Or did they?
While the discovery is real and it was happenstance – it was in the process of engineering bacteria that the surprising, plastic-engulfing results were revealed. However, the enzyme doesn’t necessarily “eat” the plastic, but breaks it down into its original components allowing it to become plastic again.
Additionally, the research actually piggybacked off a previous model of the bacteria that was discovered by Japanese researchers in 2016.
GNN reports on the perplexing finding that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal:
The enzyme is a more developed model of the bacteria that Japanese researchers discovered in 2016. Their breakthrough made international headlines because of the bacteria’s ability to digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Since the bacteria’s discovery, scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have been trying to better understand how the bacteria is able to digest the plastic.
In the midst of their studies, the scientists accidentally created a super enzyme that is derived from the bacteria – except it is even stronger than the original.
The enzyme currently has the ability to break down the plastic in a matter of days, as opposed to the centuries it would take to naturally degrade in the ocean. The research team is now pursuing a patent on the enzyme so that they can develop its potential and increase its digestion time in order to wield the enzyme on a more industrial scale.
Sounds fantastic and promising – could even be a viable solution to a plastic pollution crisis of epic proportions. However, it doesn’t appear to exactly rid the earth of plastic, unless the original components of plastic can then be removed somehow. It appears that it could halt the creation of new plastics.
Professor McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, commented:
What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic. It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.
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.
Researchers claim that the enzyme is safe; however, they haven’t disclosed what resources are need to create the enzyme and if the enzyme itself could breakdown after use. In other words, what are the byproducts of this process?
Researchers called the results modest, yet serendipitous, but haven’t said much about the engineering process. They have plans to tweak the enzymes more and we’re not sure what that entails.
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Heather Callaghan is an independent researcher, writer, speaker and food freedom activist. She is the Editor and co-founder of NaturalBlaze as well as a certified Self-Referencing IITM Practitioner.