Scientists accidentally create a plastic-eating enzyme

US and British researchers have accidentally devised an enzyme capable of destroying plastic, which could help solve the global problem related to this type of pollution, according to a study published Monday.

More than eight million tonnes of plastics end up in the world’s oceans each year, raising concerns about the toxicity of this petroleum derivative and its impact on the health of future generations and the environment.

Despite recycling efforts, the vast majority of these plastics can last for hundreds of years. Scientists are looking for a way to better eliminate them.

Scientists from the Portsmouth University of the United Kingdom and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory focused their efforts on a bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago: Ideonella sakaiensis. It feeds only on one type of plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used in many plastic bottles.

Japanese researchers believe that this bacterium has evolved quite recently in a recycling center, because plastics were invented only in the 1940s. The goal of the US-UK team was to understand the functioning of one of its enzymes called PETase, by discovering its structure.

“But they went a step further by accidentally designing an enzyme that is even more effective at breaking down PET plastics,” according to the findings published Monday in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


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