There might be finally be a magical solution to curb the world's pollution woes. A team of scientists has managed to create a substance that's capable of "eating" plastic — and like a number of great scientific marvels, it happened by accident.
Researchers from the University of Portsmouth in Britain and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory made the discovery while analyzing the structure of a natural enzyme found in a waste recycling center in Japan several years ago.
"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception," said University of Portsmouth biologist John McGeehan, who was part of the team.
How They Tweaked An Enzyme To Eat Plastic Faster
The researchers applied a tweak to the part of the enzyme they believed harbored its plastic-eating capabilities, and in doing so, they inadvertently increased its ability to degrade plastic.
Called Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, the enzyme is able to consume polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which was patented as plastic in the 1940s and is used in millions of tons of plastic bottles around the world. It doesn't actually "eat" the plastic, but it's able to accelerate a degradation process that would normally take hundreds of years to complete. It's also able to eat polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, which is a bio-based substitute for PET.
Fine-tuning the enzyme allowed the researchers to engineer an enzyme capable of combating the world's plastic excess better than any other element found in nature.
Plastic is one of the most resistant materials to degradation, and the discovery of the bacteria in Japan in 2016 was hailed as having a huge potential to finally solve the world's plastic pollution problem.
The researchers do note, however, that the tweak only introduced "modest improvement." but even so, this unexpected discovery suggests there's room for these enzymes to be improved, which could potentially bring the world closer to a recycling solution for plastic excess.
"Being able to see the inner workings of this biological catalyst provided us with the blueprints to engineer a faster and more efficient enzyme," said McGeehan.
Merely breaking down plastic into smaller portions is not in itself helpful. In fact, it makes things worse because it creates microplastics, which damage marine life and environments.
The researchers' findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
"I am delighted to be part of an international team that is tackling one of the biggest problems facing our planet," said lead study author Harry Austin, noting that there's much more to be learned and improved upon in this area.