Scientists Accidentally Develop Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic
The plastic epidemic has reached worrisome heights lately and all we can do is hope for some miracles. But not anymore! By some great stroke of luck, or as some might call it a fluke, some scientists have discovered an enzyme which can eat up Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can take several years to break down under normal circumstances, in just a matter of few days. This might just be the answer to the world’s growing plastic epidemic.
Humans have been very reckless with the usage of plastic in the past few years. This mentality of “use and throw” comes with a privilege of buying items which make our lives easier. Disposable bottles, cutlery, sanitary products, shaving supplies, all add up to the big plastic clutter that now seems difficult to even comprehend. Years and years of carelessness have to lead to a point of no return. And desperation is the catalyst for new discoveries. Who knew that enzymes, which have been around all this while could be the answer to the cries of Mother Nature?
But what exactly is an enzyme, you might ask. Enzymes are basically proteins which help speed up a chemical reaction. These catalysts are usually found in living cells. The enzyme, now rightfully called PETase can break down PET at an incredible speed. This is a giant step for environment conservation as PET is one of the main reason for clogged landfills and the disappointing amount of plastic trash in the oceans which significantly affects marine life as well.
Ironically, this amazing feat was achieved only by accident. Few scientists from the Department of National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the US were busy examining the structure of an enzyme found in a Japanese waste recycling center. The natural enzyme called Ideonella sakaiensis was capable of breaking down a PET, but just not as quickly as they would have hoped it to.
A few further modifications to the existing structure of Ideonella sakaiensis resulted in the super enzyme PETase, which has the potential to revolutionize the recycling process all over the world.
PET makes up for the majority of plastic waste which mostly ends up in landfills or the oceans for years on end, as the natural breakdown process for PET is extremely slow and time-consuming. At the rate with which things are going, PETase is definitely a blessing.
Brian Donohoe, an NREL structural biologist stated that after just 96 hours, you could clearly see via electron microscopy that the PETase is digesting PET and that this test was done by using real examples of what is found in the oceans and landfills.
Majority of bottles we purchase from shops, be it soda or water or even juice, are almost never made up of recycled plastic. When recycled, they only have the potential to become polyester fibers for carpets or fabrics. But now, with the incredulous and accidental finding of PETase, there can be a proper recycling of these bottles and have the potential to get recycled into bottles once again. This also means the lesser production of plastic and overall an end to the plastic epidemic in the near future.
Researchers are now focusing on producing and manufacturing PETase on an industrial level and studying if this can actually make a difference in real time. Even though this feat is a number of years away, it is still a major step in the right direction. It is quite a task to study and discover how to produce this power enzyme in bulk and still keep it cost effective for others to use on an industrial scale. But there is hope. After all, this enzyme has been around, living off plastic for all these years. Just a few modifications resulted in a superpower. It is only a matter of a few years that a solution has been figured and implemented.
About a million plastic bottles are produced every minute all over the world and as time goes on and the population keeps booming, the numbers are said to increase by 20% by the next 3 years. Over 8 million tons of plastic garbage enter our oceans every year. 322 million tons of plastic were produced in just a year 2015. There are said to be more microplastics in the oceans than there are stars in the Milky Way. If that doesn’t put things into perspective, then I don’t know know what else can. But, there is hope. Science has come a long way and as long as people are innovative and find options for sustainability, this plastic epidemic will be a thing of the past. PETase is the future of recycling and we can’t wait for a time where plastics in the oceans would not be subject to worry anymore.