Plastic-Eating Enzyme: The Accidental Creation That Can Save The World from Plastic

The long-lasting battle against plastic pollution will see an end as scientists accidentally invented an enzyme that eats plastic. For now, the enzyme takes a few days to break down plastic polymer; however, fully optimized enzyme can kill plastic in no time.

Plastic-Eating Enzyme

Not all lab accidents lead to an outbreak of zombie virus; some can save the world from plastic. There was a time when humanity invented its greatest invention, moldable polymers. Over the years, this blessing has turned into a curse. However, the scientists in the U.S. and Britain invented a mutant to deal with plastic. Researchers accidentally developed an enzyme, which eats plastic and possesses potential to fully recycle the polymer.

Every year, more than eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped into oceans globally, and only baby steps are taken by government against the plastic production and consumption. Two years ago, in Japan, a discovery came into the light about a naturally occurring bacteria known as Ideonella sakaiensis that can literally eat plastic. After the discovery, researchers focused on how does the bacteria’s enzyme work and whether it can be manufactured on a larger scale. However, the scientists at the University of Portsmouth, U.K. went a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme that can break down the most complex plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth and the lead author of the study, said the discovery was “a bit of a shock” to them. However, the engineered enzyme was proved to be 20 percent better than the original. While addressing the results of the discovery, McGeehan explained, “The percentage is irrelevant. The study proves that the enzyme is not fully developed yet and needs optimization. The experiment gives a hope for a super-fast enzyme that can break down plastic faster than ever.” Moreover, McGeehan hopes that one day, the enzyme will turn plastic into its ingredients by fully breaking it down to its molecular level.

Currently, the enzyme takes one or two days to begin the breaking of plastic and about six weeks to completely eat it. On the other hand, over a million bottles are manufactured every minute. Instead of reducing and reusing the waste plastic, people dump it into the oceans, which formed a habitat-destroying pile of plastic on the shores. Therefore, scientists such as McGeehan want to develop the enzyme and mass-produce it in form of sprays. Furthermore, numerous researchers try to develop sustainable alternative of plastic to reduce its consumption. Recently, a company, Ooho by Skipping Rocks Lab has created an ‘edible water bottle’. Skipping Rocks Lab is the U.S.-based startup that focuses on sustainable packaging for post-beverage snacks. The company developed an edible water orb created from biodegradable brown algae. Ooho’s water orbs provide an easy substitute to plastic bottles, where water is encapsulated by the covering made from brown algae. After removing the covering, one can eat the orb. Though, eating the orb seems a fun part, that was not the reason that the invention became famous. Scientists believe that this is a big step toward reducing use of plastic water bottles.

The recent development and studies to reduce plastic consumption have raised hopes of clean and plastic-free oceans and environment. Moreover,  one can hope to finish off plastic once and all with the help of plastic-eating enzyme. Furthermore, the mass-produced and fully optimized enzymes could have a significant impact on the huge piles of plastic in a very short period.


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