Plastic bottles: they need between 450 and 1,000 years to biodegrade | Photo: Creative Commons

A team of scientists discovered an enzyme that that digests the most common plastics found in the environment.

According to the researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the discovery was nearly accidental.

They were studying the structure of a natural enzyme - PETase - which is thought to have evolved in a Japanese waste recycling center, allowing a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source.

Inadvertently, they ended up engineering a new plastic eating enzyme that is better and faster breaking down plastics compared to the one that evolved in nature.

So, in other words, the PETase mutant is more effective and efficient than the natural PETase when degrading PET. To put things into perspective, plastic bottles, for example, take between 450 and 1,000 years to biodegrade.

"We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem. But the scientific community who ultimately created these 'wonder-materials, must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions," underlines Professor John McGeehan, one of the leading researchers involved in the study.

According to the scientists, the newly improved enzyme quickly recycles plastic back to its original building blocks and opens the door to a sustainable circular plastics economy.

Now, the goal is to work on improving the enzyme further before developing it industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly abbreviated PET, is the most popular thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family. It is widely used in bottles, containers, and packaging.

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