An international team of scientists has created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drink bottles, according to the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The creation of the enzyme came by accident when a team of scientists led by Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth found a bacterium hidden in the soil at a plastic recycling plant.
Researchers found that microbe evolved to eat and degrade plastic soda bottles when people throw them away.
According to the British Plastics Federation, the bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) can package 70 percent of soft drinks, fruit juices and mineral waters sold in shops and supermarkets. Although the plastic bottles made from PET are considered to be highly recyclable and are supposed to degrade after throwing away. But, PET persists for hundreds of years in the environment before it actually degrades.
The bacterium had naturally evolved to eat plastic, and the scientists made it even better at breaking down polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, the plastic used for drink bottles. The break-down process starts in a matter of days, not the centuries it can take in the ocean. The bacteria used a natural enzyme called PETase to digest PET plastic bottles and containers.
Professor John McGeehan told the Guardian,
What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” , it’s great and a real finding, What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”
Although, it will take a while before these innovations can be used to break down the billions of tonnes of plastic we’ve already accumulated, now that we have got a proof of concept that we can use science to give nature a helping hand at breaking down PET containing plastic bottles.