The scientists in just such a scenario comprise an global team that was working off of a 2016 discovery of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic.
The discovery follows research published by BRITA UK and environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy today (17 April), which found that only 17% of consumers are strongly committed to finding alternatives to single-use plastic bottles. "We hoped to determine its structure to aid in protein engineering, but we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics".
"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, who was also involved in the study. "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment", McGeehan was quoted as saying. Humans purchase a million plastic bottles every minute worldwide, according to the Guardian, the lion's share of which do not get recycled.
The modified enzyme, called PETase, can break down PET in just a few days-a stunning discovery that could help fight the world's escalating plastic crisis.
One of the most exciting implications of the new research and the evolution of the enzyme is the way it could drastically improve plastic recycling.
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Using a synchrotron particle accelerator, the researchers, in collaboration with Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom, used intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to view the individual atoms making up PETase.
The pollution of the oceans worries scientists. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not.
By using a super-advanced microscope, based at the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire, the Portsmouth scientists, along with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, the University of South Florida, and the University of Campinas in Sao Paulo, could look at the three-dimensional make-up of PETase at an extremely high resolution using the Long-Wavelength Macromolecular Crystallography beamline.
"We were thrilled to learn that PETase works even better on PEF than on PET", Beckham said in a statement.
Other types of plastic could be broken down by bacteria currently evolving in the environment, McGeehan said: "People are now searching vigorously for those". He said, "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". With the new enzyme, PET could be efficiently broken down and used again.