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17th Apr 2018

Scientists accidentally discover mutant enzyme which digests plastic

Alan Loughnane

It could help solve a lot of recycling problems…

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and they did it completely by accident.

The discovery is being hailed as potentially being the solution to the global plastic pollution crisis and is the first known protein capable of digesting polyethylene, one of the most commonly used plastics for consumer goods.

PETase is secreted by a plastic-eating bacterium called Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6. This bug was discovered in 2016 at a PET-bottle recycling plant in Sakai, Japan.

However, Ideonella sakaiensis on its own is not useful in industrial recycling on its own as it digests plastic too slowly.

But the breakthrough was made unintentionally when tests were conducted on the naturally occurring bacteria found in a Japanese recycling centre, further testing showed that it caused it to mutate into a more powerful enzyme.

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic and experts have said that they’re confident the process can be accelerated even further into a large scale process.

With around one million plastic bottles sold around the world every minute, only 14% of these are recycled and much of the rest ends up in the oceans and waterways damaging marine life and potentially affecting humans who consume seafood.