Scientists Find Super Plastic-eating Enzyme by Accident

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April 17, 2018

Scientists from the U.K. and the U.S. have accidentally developed an enzyme that seems to "eat" plastic relatively quickly.

Plastic bottle

The scientists, from the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, were investigating Ideonaella sakaiensis 201-F6, an enzyme discovered by Japanese scientists in 2016. That enzyme was found to break down the molecular bonds of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which gained widespread use in the 1940s and is now used in millions of tons of plastic bottles every year. The Japanese scientists discovered the microbe while investigating sediment samples at a bottle recycling plant in Osaka.

In the new research, the U.K. and U.S. scientists were studying the structure of the microbe that the Japanese scientists found and, in the process, created another enzyme, called PETase, that is even better at consuming plastic. They observed a breakdown in just a few days. PET degrades naturally in about 450 years.

The results of this latest research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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