Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that might be a solution to combat ocean pollution caused by plastics. And all by accident.
In 2016 they discovered bacteria at a Japanese dump site, that had evolved to eat plastic. During research, when the scientists manipulated the enzymes that are produced by the bacteria, it happened. They accidentally created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drink bottles. A “recycling” enzyme was born that makes it possible to fully recycle plastic drink bottles. How cool is that?
Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research, said, “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock. It’s great and a real finding.”
The enzyme only breaks down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is the plastic that is used for soda bottles. Which is of great help considering the amount of plastic soda bottles that end up in the oceans. What’s more, this also opens the door for other plastic eating enzymes to combat ocean pollution.
Why we need to combat ocean pollution
Plastic bottles in the ocean can take up to 450 years to decompose. During which time they harm marine life and also can cause harm to humans who like to eat sea food. The enzyme, on the other hand, can get the breaking down job started within a few days. Scientists say that micro-plastic pollution in oceans is far worse than feared.
The international team of researchers believes to be able to speed it up even more. “The enzyme is not yet optimized.” said McGeehan. “It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years and make a super-fast enzyme.”
“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,” said McGeehan. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.” You might also like to read about the potential health risks scented candles pose to babies.
Public driver needed to combat ocean pollution
“You are always up against the fact that oil is cheap, so virgin PET is cheap,” said McGeehan. “It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle. But I believe there is a public driver here. Perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these.”
At the moment only 14% of the approx. 1 million bottles sold per minute around the world go into recycling. Most of the remainder of the bottles end up in the oceans.
“It is incredibly resistant to degradation. Some of those images are horrific. It is one of these wonder materials that has been made a little bit too well.” said McGeehan.
During the current recycling process the bottles are turned into opaque fibres for clothing or carpets. But with the work of the enzymes, recycling bottles back into bottles will be possible. Which, in turn, will eliminate the need to produce new bottles from oil on a large scale.
There could be more bacteria out there that are evolving to break down other types of plastic. “People are now searching vigorously for those,” said McGeehan. Bacteria naturally adapts to the environment. Adaptions lead to mutations in the genes as you can see here in Rare Genetic Mutations That Can Be Found In Nature.
There is also hope that some day, plastic eating bacteria can be sprayed onto the plastic trash patches in the oceans. The patches are so large that they can be seen from the International Space Station. It would not work for PET, though, because it sinks in sea water rather than floating.
This video visualization by NASA highlights the extend to which plastic is polluting the ocean.
Other scientist, not part of the research team, are excited, but also voice concern
Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said, “I think it is very exciting work, showing there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society’s growing waste problem.”
“Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms,” he continued. “There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable,” and, “This is certainly a step in a positive direction.”
Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester,UK, thinks the enzyme could be useful, but he also voiced concern. “A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem – waste – at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. Greenhouse gas emissions are already causing havoc on this planet as you can see, while experiencing the strangest events that are happening.
This new research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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