Scientists say they have engineered an enzyme that can consume plastic. The plastic-eating enzyme could help combat pollution, write Kate Kelland and Stuart McDill for The Wire. Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory discovered the enzyme while studying the structure of a naturally occurring enzyme found in a waste recycling center in Japan. The enzyme is able to digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a form of plastic used in millions of tons of plastic bottles.
PET plastics can survive for hundreds of years in the environment, write Kelland and McDill. The research team published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where they discuss how the enzyme helps a bacterium to break down, or digest, PET plastic. They made changes to its structure, allowing its plastic-eating abilities to work faster. “We’ve made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already,” John McGeehan, co-author of the study told Reuters.
The team is still working on improvements to the enzyme hoping that they can make it capable of breaking down PET plastics on an industrial scale. Oliver Jones from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University sees the potential in this method. “There is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society’s growing waste problem by breaking down some of the most commonly used plastics,” he said.