Plastic pollution is a major environmental issue that needs to be addressed. The same qualities that make it useful—such as durability—make single-use plastics almost impossible to break down. Scientists believe they have a solution.
A team of researchers has engineered a new enzyme that is designed to eat plastic and break it down into smaller molecules. It specifically targets polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used to create things like plastic bottles and home construction materials.
The enzyme could have major implications for the world if researchers can integrate it into large-scale recycling systems.
Speeding Up Nature
Normally, it takes hundreds of years for PET to degrade. The researchers’ new enzyme decreases that time to just a few days.
The PET devourer is actually a combination of two enzymes—PETase and MHETase. Combining the two makes it possible to break down plastics twice as fast. Fusing them together results in tripled degradation speeds on top of that.
Researchers used a device called the Diamond Light Source, which emits x-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun, to combine the two enzymes.
The team borrowed the technique from the biofuel industry, according to CNN. That sector frequently uses enzymes to break down materials into core molecules. However, the team claims that this is the first time it is being used to attack the problem of plastic pollution.
It’s worth noting that a French firm called Carbios revealed a similar PET-eating enzyme back in April.
Regardless, the new PETase-MHETase combination enzyme appears to be the most efficient plastic eater yet. Its success was a surprise to everyone. John McGeehan, the lead author of the study and the director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth told CNN, “We were actually quite surprised it worked so well.”
Despite the fact that the synthetic enzyme decreases a centuries-long process to just a few days, McGeehan also notes that it is “still way too slow” for commercial recycling applications.
Researchers published their work on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
More Work Ahead
To be clear, this isn’t a perfect solution to the world’s quickly escalating plastic problem. Companies and consumers alike need to focus on producing and using less plastic in the first place. However, single-use items do have a place in our lives.
For instance, hospitals depend on single-use equipment to maintain sterile fields and prevent infections. The food industry also relies on plastic containers to keep foods fresh and safe.
Since the world isn’t going to stop producing plastic, developing reliable and fast ways to recycle it is essential. That’s exactly what this enzyme-based approach offers.
There is still a lot that needs to be done, however. McGeehan says that his team has enough funding to continue experimenting with the PETase enzyme. Should their work yield more breakthroughs it could result in a commercially viable plastic recycling system much faster than anything in use today.
“We’re looking at huge energy savings,” he says.