PUBLIC HEALTH
May 4, 2018

Plastic-Eating Enzymes!

Researchers have developed an enzyme that digests plastic. Now to put it to work cleaning up our bottle-strewn beaches.

There may be help on the way for all those discarded plastic bottles clogging our communities, beaches and waterways. And it all started at a recycling plant in Japan where scientists found bacteria that were using plastic bottles as a food source, literally eating them.

Given time, some bacteria will evolve and use nearly any carbon-containing substance as an energy source. Even though they haven't had much time to adapt to polyethylene terepthalate (PET), the material used in most plastic bottles which was patented in the 1940s, some have started snacking on PET and certain other plastics.

Researchers are optimistic this process can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale operation.

Investigating further, scientists were able to isolate and crystallize the enzyme responsible for digesting the plastic, tweak it to make it work faster, freeze-dry it and ship it across continents, with the enzyme remaining potent throughout, a good sign.

Perhaps plastic has met its match, but right now, the digestion process is slow, taking a few days before the bacteria start to digest the plastic. But even that is far faster than the centuries needed for bottles to break down in the oceans. And researchers are optimistic this process can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale operation.

While it still makes sense to manufacture — and use — less plastic in the first place, the discovery suggests we may soon have a tool to help rid us of the plastic waste currently fouling every part of the world, or at least to make a sizeable dent in it.

About 20 percent of the plastic produced worldwide is PET plastic. In addition to PET, the enzyme also digests some of the other so-called aromatic plastics, including polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a material that is beginning to be used as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

PET “…is one of these wonder materials that has been made a little bit too well,” said researcher, John McGeehan, of the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. “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 believes that all of us can play a part in reducing the plastic problem, but as the creators of these “wonder-materials,” the scientific community must use all the technology at its disposal to come up with a solution.

The study is published in PNAS, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

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