We’ve got polar bears playing with plastic bags in the Arctic, a huge patch of it choking marine life to death in the pacific, plastic microparticles suffuse in our air and drinking water, and plans to produce three times as much as ever before by 2050. No matter where you are on Earth, plastic is a big problem.
And now we have bacteria that eats it for lunch.
Scientists in Japan have discovered an enzyme that can “eat” plastic six times faster that previously thought possible. The bacteria in this formulation can break down plastic into its simplest components, which makes it possible to fully recycle items like plastic bottles instead of burying them in landfills or throwing them in the ocean.
According to The Guardian, the enzyme could be put into use within a year.
This “super-enzyme” was developed by joining two separate types of bacteria found at a plastic waste site in 2016. There, researchers first discovered the organisms could break down the molecular bonds of polyethylene terephthalate plastic, one of the world’s most-used materials, also known as PET or polyester.
The initial formulation of the enzyme could break down plastic in a matter of days, but was less effective at degrading highly crystallized PET used in plastic bottles.
“It’s difficult to break down highly crystallized PET,” said Prof Kenji Miyamoto from Keio University, one of the authors of a study on the plastic-eating enzymes. “Our research results are just the initiation for the application. We have to work on so many issues needed for various applications. It takes a long time.”
The newest iteration of the enzyme, which combines the strengths of two different bacteria, is much faster.
“When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got a dramatic increase in activity,“ Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, told The Guardian. “This is a trajectory towards trying to make faster enzymes that are more industrially relevant. But it’s also one of those stories about learning from nature, and then bringing it into the lab.”
This super enzyme was actually discovered on accident. While studying an enzyme called PETase, which is capable of degrading crystalline PET, a mutant strain emerged, capable of eating the plastic 20% faster. When combined with another strain from the Japanese waste site, scientists created a hybrid enzyme able break down all types of PET plastics about three times faster. There are yet other bacteria being researched, which may speed up the process even further.
“There’s huge potential,” McGeehan said. “We’ve got several hundred in the lab that we’re currently sticking together.”
In France, a company called Carbios has been working with another enzyme found in a compost heap of leaves. This enzyme breaks down about 90% of PET plastics in just 10 hours, The Guardian reports, but is much less effective in environments cooler than a steamy 158 degrees.
Large investments in new labs and equipment for both initiatives is a sign that the research will continue, and could even lead to collaboration between the Japanese and French approaches. It’s also been theorized that adding a third bacteria to the mix, one which prefers cotton to plastic, could provide an opportunity to recycle clothing rather than sending millions of tons of used and unused garments it to the landfill each year.
Learn more in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.