An worldwide team of researchers accidentally created a mutant enzyme that could potentially solve humanity's problem with plastics.
The findings were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. "We hoped to determine its structure to aid in protein engineering, but we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics".
"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", McGeehan added.
Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles - by accident.
"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock", says lead researcher, John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth, UK. The newly discovered enzyme promises to recycle plastic bottles back into new clear plastic bottles, which would require much less virgin plastic.
In 2015, another study found between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, but in an interview with Reuters, McGeehan said he and his team are hopeful their research will lead to a large-scale recycling process.
The enzyme now 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. "It's incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimized".
The researchers are now focusing their efforts on improving the enzyme so that it may be able to industrially break down plastics in a fraction of the time.
While working to solve the crystal structure of PETase-a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET-the team inadvertently engineered an enzyme to be even better at degrading the man-made substance. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle".
The U.S. Department of Energy partnered with the University of Portsmouth on the discovery.
"It does only focus on one type of plastic".
The pollution of the oceans worries scientists.
Chemist Oliver Jones of RMIT University, who wasn't part of the research, told The Guardian this work is exciting, and that enzymes are biodegradable, non-toxic, and microorganisms can produce them in big quantities.
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". He said, "There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable".