From microwave and x-ray technologies to penicillin, many of the world’s greatest inventions were inspired by accidents in the lab. And now a team of scientists may be responsible for the world’s latest “happy accident” — mutant enzymes that eat plastic bottles.
According to the Guardian, scientists researching a bacterium discovered to be eating plastic at a waste dump in Japan in 2016 have successfully altered an enzyme, which the bacterium produces, to make it even better at breaking down plastic.
The accidental discovery of a plastic-eating enzyme seems like a storybook solution to the earth’s plastic problem, considering the material itself was discovered accidentally.
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Plastic, especially harder plastics like those used to make bottles, can take hundreds of years to break down on their own. But PETase, as the modified enzyme is called, can start breaking plastic down within a few days, the BBC reported.
While PETase can’t get rid of plastic altogether, it can break plastic bottles down to their original elements, which can then be used to make recycled plastic.
Doing this “means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment,” lead researcher, Professor John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth, UK, told the Guardian.
The scientists hope to further improve the enzyme, making it more efficient at breaking down plastic, so that it can be used on a larger-scale to combat plastic waste and reduce environmental degradation caused by the extraction of resources to produce new plastic.
If they succeed, PETase could have a significant impact on plastic waste.
Since the world first began mass producing plastic about six decades ago, 8.3 billion metric tons have been created — 91% of which has not been recycled, according to one study. And much of that plastic ends up in the ocean. In fact, each year approximately 8 million tons of plastic finds its way into the ocean, entering the water at roughly the rate of one garbage truck-load per minute, the Ocean Conservancy estimated.
If the world’s plastic production and consumption habits do not drastically change, it’s estimated that humans will have generated 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste by 2050.
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