Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug. The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” said McGeehan. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”

About 1m plastic bottles are sold each minute around the globe and, with just 14% recycled, many end up in the oceans where they have polluted even the remotest parts, harming marine life and potentially people who eat seafood. “It is incredibly resistant to degradation. Some of those images are horrific,” said McGeehan. “It is one of these wonder materials that has been made a little bit too well.”

However, currently even those bottles that are recycled can only be turned into opaque fibres for clothing or carpets. The new enzyme indicates a way to recycle clear plastic bottles back into clear plastic bottles, which could slash the need to produce new plastic.

“You are always up against the fact that oil is cheap, so virgin PET is cheap,” said McGeehan. “It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle. But I believe there is a public driver here: perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these.”

Industrial enzymes are widely used in, for example, washing powders and biofuel production, They have been made to work up to 1,000 times faster in a few years, the same timescale McGeehan envisages for the plastic-eating enzyme. A patent has been filed on the specific mutant enzyme by the Portsmouth researchers and those from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

“Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms,” 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. [But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction.”

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