Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
This new super-enzyme is able to break down plastic at room temperature, setting it apart from the enzyme that the French company Carbios discovered in April. As EcoWatch reported at the time, the Carbios enzyme started to work when the plastic was heated to 65 to 72 degrees Celsius, or 149 to 161 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the range when plastic bottles start to soften and melt.
The researchers worked doggedly to reengineer the enzymes of an enzyme first discovered in Japan in 2016. The scientists published their results Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the paper, they describe how the bacterium Idoenella sakaiensis produces two enzymes that thrive by consuming plastic bottles, according to Gizmodo.
The research holds tremendous promise for tackling the plastic waste crisis since the enzyme feeds on the type of plastic that water and soda bottles are made of, polyethylene terephthalate (PET). That type of plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade. The enzyme that the researchers enhanced can break the plastic down in just a few days, according to John McGeehan, the director of the Center for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., as The Telegraph reported.
“When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got a dramatic increase in activity,” said McGeehan, as The Guardian reported. “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.”
He was referring to the process that bacteria in nature use to devour polyesters, which occur in nature to protect plant leaves. “Bacteria have been evolving for millions of years to eat that,” he said, as the BBC reported in April.
McGeehan added that the enzyme could help accelerate a sustainable model since it enables the plastics to be “made and reused endlessly, reducing our reliance on fossil resources,” as The Independent in Ireland reported.
McGeehan believes that cooperation between researchers and corporations could help scale up the enzyme in the near future.
“If we can make better, faster enzymes by linking them together and provide them to companies like Carbios, and work in partnership, we could start doing this within the next year or two,” he said, as The Guardian reported.
McGeehan and his team also believe their enhancements can be improved so the enzymes are able to consume plastic faster. By adjusting a bit of the residue on the enzyme’s surface, it was able to work a bit faster, suggesting that further optimization is still down the road. A testing facility is under construction for McGeehan and his team in Portsmouth, while Carbios is building a plant in France to put the enzymes to use, according to The Guardian.
“The faster we can make the enzymes, the quicker we can break down the plastic, and the more commercially viable it will be,” said McGeehan, as The Telegraph reported.