Bacteria potential plastic solution
TAMPA, Florida — Scientists in the US and Britain have accidentally engineered an enzyme which can digest some of the most commonly polluting plastics, providing a potential solution to one of the world’s biggest environmental problems.
More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans each year, say researchers, and concern is mounting over the petroleum-derived product’s toxic legacy on the environment.
Despite recycling efforts, most plastic can persist for hundreds of years in the environment, so researchers are searching for better ways to eliminate it.
Scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory decided to focus on a naturally occurring bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago.
Japanese researchers believe the bacterium evolved fairly recently in a waste recycling center, since plastics were not invented until the 1940s.
Known as Ideonella sakaiensis, it appears to feed exclusively on a type of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (known as PET), used widely in plastic bottles.
The researchers’ goal was to understand how one of its enzymes — called PETase — worked, by figuring out its structure.