We may have a new weapon in our fight against the rising tide of plastic pollution – and it was discovered by accident.
By studying the structure of an existing enzyme previously found to be useful at digesting plastic, researchers at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) created a mutant version that works even more effectively.
The mutated version digests some ofthe most commonly polluting plastics, including those made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, faster than the original enzyme. But, more significantly, it can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF) – a bio-based substitute for PET plastics being hailed as a replacement for glass bottles.
PET currently lasts for hundreds of years in the environment and this accidental discovery could provide a viable recycling solution for millions of tons of bottles and packaging. The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme so it can be used to break down plastics in an industrial setting.