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Scientists have created a “super enzyme” that eats plastic bottles

plastic water bottle

Photo: Serenity Mitchell


By now you have heard that plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental concerns in the world. By any measurement, things like single-use plastic bottles are well on their way to flooding landfills and eventually pouring into our oceans at frightening speeds. The Pew Charitable Trust, for example, plans to dump around 29 million tons into the ocean per year by 2040, decimating ecosystems and influencing every way we rely on or interact with the ocean.

And it’s a problem that only gets worse because plastic isn’t biodegradable, which means that once we make it, we’re stuck. This has led scientists to research ways to change it, even employing wax worms to eat the stuff. One widely studied theoretical solution is to create an enzyme that could essentially dissolve several plastics, and a team of scientists announced this week that they have one that can eat plastic bottles six times faster than was previously possible.

It started in 2016 when scientists discovered a bacterium in Japan that could break the molecular bonds of one of the most used plastics in the world: polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or polyester. “Some bacteria think plastic is great,” they wrote, specifying that the bacteria could break down low-quality plastic in days.

That original enzyme was called PETase which they have now combined with another called MHETase, typically used to break down cotton. The new “super enzyme” created by the coupling is the one they report works six times faster. Equally promising is the fact that researchers plan to make this technique viable for breaking down plastics on a large scale “within the next year or two.”

‘When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got a dramatic increase in activity,’ said Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth in the UK. “This is a trajectory towards trying to produce faster enzymes that are more industrially relevant. But it’s also one of those stories about learning from nature and then taking it to the lab. “

However, even with the new findings, the researchers are intent on upping the ante, as their current innovation is not commercially viable.

“There is huge potential,” McGeehan said. “We have several hundred of them in the lab we are currently holding together.”

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