Scientists have announced a breakthrough discovery of a super enzyme that can eat plastic six-times faster than current plastic eating enzymes.
A team of researchers found that linking two different enzymes together eventuated in the creation of one’ plastic-eating enzyme that could potentially be scaled up to remove excess plastic from landfills and in-house at manufacturers.
This could be a potentially massive breakthrough for researchers attempting to tackle the problem of excess plastic products entering landfill at a rate of 300 million tonnes each year. Typically, plastic takes several hundred years to decompose, and in the process, the decomposition leaves potentially hazardous microplastics behind.
In order to make this discovery a team of scientists has been studying an enzyme that was discovered in 2016 at a Japanese waste processing plant. They say that this particular enzyme had evolved to the point its gut bacteria was able to both eat plastic and process petroleum-based plastics.
The team of scientists combined the Japanese enzyme with an engineered version that was created in 2018, and said combining the two resulted in the creation of a super enzyme that is able to process plastics six-times faster than ever seen before. According to reports, the enzyme is able to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is used for plastic bottles, carpets and clothing.
“When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got a dramatic increase in activity,” says Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth. “This is a trajectory towards trying to make faster enzymes that are more industrially relevant. But it’s also one of those stories about learning from nature, and then bringing it into the lab,” he says.
McGheehan continued to explain that “if we can make better, faster enzymes by linking them together and provide them to companies like Carbios, and work in partnership, we could start doing this within the next year or two.”
He added that the potential for commercial uses of enzymes like these are remarkable.
According to a report from The Guardian, “scientists believe combining it with enzymes that break down cotton could also allow mixed-fabric clothing to be recycled.” According to that same report, a French company called Carbios earlier this year announced the creation of an enzyme found in a pile of compost.
Researchers say that this unique enzyme was able to degrade 90% of a plastic bottle in just ten-hours, however, this particular enzyme requires ambient temperatures of above 70 degrees celsius.
According to numbers published by Business Insider, “global production of plastics has increased rapidly over the last 70 years, and it continues to grow at around 8% per year. Up to 14 million tons of plastic enters the ocean annually, an estimated 40% of which is single-use plastics like plastic bottles, which wind up in the ocean within the same year they’re produced.”
That report goes on to explain that scientific researchers have found more than 414 million pieces of plastic in remote areas of the Indian ocean, while another team discovered that microplastics from PET products are more likely to sink to the ocean floor than float.