Researchers in the UK and the U.S. have accidentally engineered an enzyme that eats plastic.
The enzyme, which is able to digest PET (polyethylene terephthalate), was discovered by chance. Scientists from the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) were examining the structure of a natural bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis which was found in 2016 at a Japanese waste recycling centre.
The bacterium uses an enzyme to break down PET plastic, but not fast enough.
To understand how Ideonella sakaiensis evolved, the research team tweaked the structure of the enzyme, PETase, by adding some amino acids. In the process they created an enzyme that worked faster than the natural one.
The scientists found that the new PETase mutant works better than the natural PETase in degrading PET.
Professor John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth, who co-led the work, said that serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and their discovery is no exception.
PETase, the modified enzyme, can break down PET in a few days. This amazing discovery could contribute to the world’s war against plastic pollution.