This discovery could solve the major problem of environmental pollution. Unwittingly, American and British researchers have devised an enzyme capable of destroying plastic at an accelerated rate.
This discovery, explained in a study, published Monday, April 16, 2018, was conducted by teams from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom and by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy (NREL).
The pollution of the oceans worries scientists. Its impact on the health of humans, animals and the environment is well documented. Each year, more than eight million tons of plastics are found in different oceans of the planet. The majority of these plastics can last for hundreds of years in the waters.
This discovery follows the discovery in 2016 of an enzyme that naturally evolved into a Japanese dump. This enzyme, called PETase, fed on PET plastic, used by millions of tons in the manufacture of plastic bottles in particular.
The initial goal of the British-American team was to understand how the PETase enzyme works, by discovering its structure. Scientists did not expect to improve it by studying it. And yet, by adding amino acids to the structure of the enzyme discovered in Japan, researchers have been able to observe an unexpected change in its behavior. The latter began to break down the plastic faster. The modified enzyme can destroy PET plastic in just a few days. A record time, far from the years, even centuries, that plastic currently takes to destroy itself in the open air.
“Luck is often an important part of basic scientific research, and our discovery is no exception,” said John McGeehan, a professor at the School of Biological Sciences in Portsmouth, “Although the breakthrough is modest, this unexpected discovery suggests that there is room for further improvement of these enzymes, to bring us even closer to a recycling solution for this ever-growing body of plastic that no one seems to consider as important,” he added.
Scientists are now working to improve the performance of the mutant enzyme, hoping to one day use it in an industrial process of destruction of plastics.
“It is quite possible that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to recycle PET and potentially others (plastics) into their original components so that they can be recycled in a sustainable way,” said Professor John McGeehan.
This discovery is all the more important as the use of enzyme in plastic recycling would be a natural solution. “The enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large quantities by microorganisms,” said Oliver Jones, a chemistry expert at the University of Melbourne.
As a conclusion to the study, Professor John McGeehan said, “We can all play a big role in the plastic problem. But the scientific community that created these “miracle materials” (plastics) must now use all the technologies available to them to develop real solutions”.