Just In Time For Earth Day — A Plastic-Eating Enzyme!

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Ideonella sakaiensis – Plastic eating bacteria (Photo Credit: greenyway.com)

The Earth Day Network may have an unexpected ally in its quest to solve the global plastic pollution crisis: bacteria. More specifically, an enzyme produced by the Ideonella sakaiensis microbes. Dubbed PETase, it can expertly break down PET (polyethylene terephthalate), one of the most common types of plastic, within days, instead of the over 450 years it takes the synthetic material to decompose naturally.

Ideonella sakaiensis was first discovered devouring plastic in a waste dump in Japan in 2016. The bacterium had naturally evolved to produce an enzyme that could break PET’s strongly-bonded molecules into a thin layer of plastic within six weeks. Since then, researchers from the UK’s University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have been studying the enzyme’s crystalline structure to investigate how it eats through the material.

An ultra-high-resolution 3D model of PETase revealed it was similar to cutinase, an enzyme that breaks down cutin, a polymer-like substance plants produce to protect themselves. Assuming PETase might be related to cutinase, the researchers manipulated the protein to study its properties and make it more similar to the latter. Instead, they unintentionally created a mutant enzyme that was 20 percent more effective at breaking down plastic than the original version of PETase. “Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,” said John McGeehan, professor of structural biology at the University of Portsmouth.

A close-up electron microscope image of the newly engineered enzyme degrading PET plastic (Photo Credit: Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Though PETase does not currently feast at a rate that could reduce the 9 billion tons of plastic on our planet, scientists hope that it could be similarly tweaked to be more efficient. “It’s clear that significant potential remains for improving [PETase’s] activity further,” said NREL materials scientist Nic Rorrer.

The news gets even better. The international team, which published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 16, 2018, believes the enzyme could do more than devour the plastic. It could make it reusable by breaking it down into its simple chemical units. Currently, plastic bottles can only be recycled into fibers for clothing or carpets, but the enzyme could give them a second life so we don’t have to continue using new resources. “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.”

Plastic Waste in Manila Bay Philippines (Photo Credit: Dianna Cohen/Plastic Pollution Coalition)

This is not the first time that bugs have been a surprising boon in the battle against plastic pollution. Last year, Spanish researchers discovered a type of waxworm caterpillar that can break down plastic within hours, while a 2015 Stanford study found that mealworms could eat Styrofoam. Unfortunately, the researchers have yet to find a way to use the insects to make any impact on the extensive plastic pollution. Hopefully, PETase will be easier to reproduce and deploy.

While the breakthrough provides a much-needed glimmer of hope to combat this global crisis, it is only part of the solution. Cutting back our use of plastic by making small lifestyle changes such as utilizing reusable shopping bags and water bottles or avoiding plastic utensils and straws is key to eliminating the problem. So be sure to do something positive for our planet every single day.

Resources: Guardian.co.uk, newatlas.com, pbs.org

Happy Earth Day!

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388 Comments
  • chlooe
    chlooeSunday, March 17, 2019 at 2:36 pm
    So many things that’re Able to recycle!
    • cheyFriday, February 22, 2019 at 2:14 pm
      turkeys are weird..... there's a turkey mayor
      • Buzzy beeThursday, January 24, 2019 at 6:39 am
        That would be great for dealing with all the trash we have instead of shooting it up into space in a rocket ship and creating more space junk which is bad for the ISS and other satellites .
        • Purplekat666666Thursday, December 20, 2018 at 10:32 am
          This is very interesting!! (P.S Man these rules are strict.)
          • moningFriday, December 14, 2018 at 8:12 am
            so cool and that is good for our planet
            • NinjaGamingCatThursday, December 13, 2018 at 2:19 pm
              I really hope this works. If it does, then the earth is saved. From one problem.
              • 6687686768
                6687686768Monday, December 10, 2018 at 5:51 pm
                so cool
                • meMonday, December 10, 2018 at 10:39 am
                  wow earth really needs help
                  • chell
                    chellMonday, February 25, 2019 at 4:43 pm
                    I agree.
                  • 26brandonc758
                    26brandonc758Monday, December 10, 2018 at 8:17 am
                    this is prefect
                    • hentaimaster
                      hentaimasterTuesday, March 5, 2019 at 11:37 am
                      *perfect lol
                    • pidge
                      pidgeThursday, November 29, 2018 at 6:12 pm
                      very interesting my dudes