SCIENTISTS HAVE CREATED an enzyme capable of digesting some of the most common types of plastics that pollute the Earth.
The discovery happened accidentally when researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory were examining an enzyme found in a recycling center several years ago in Japan, according to the Energy Department lab.
Researchers unintentionally manipulated the enzyme, making it more successful at breaking down polyethylene terephthalate – PET – the material from which millions of plastic bottles are constructed and one of the most common pollutants in the environment. PET was patented as a plastic in the 1940s and is not biodegradable.
The University of Portsmouth said in a press release that the discovery could result in a recycling solution for millions of tons of plastic bottles that currently persist for hundreds of years in the environment.
During their research, senior scientist Bryon Donohoe at the Energy Department lab and researcher Nic Rorrer tested how the enzyme, called PETase, broke down PET in plastic soda bottles.
"After just 96 hours you can see clearly via electron microscopy that the PETase is degrading PET," said Donohoe in NREL's release. "And this test is using real examples of what is found in the oceans and landfills."
The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme to be able to break down plastics at the industrial scale in a fraction of its current rate. John McGeehan, a scientist involved in the discovery and the director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at the university, said when PET was patented there was no way to predict how much plastic pollution would be present today.
"Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world," McGeehan said in the university's release. "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."