Enzyme Eats Plastic

By Riley Forbes


Artwork by Cai McCann

Every minute, 1 million plastic bottles are sold across the globe, and only 14% are recycled. Plastic bottles, in addition to other single use plastic items, contribute to the more than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste that make it into the world’s ocean every year. Despite increasing awareness about the importance of recycling, scientists are searching for methods to tackle this problem.


In 2016, researchers discovered a bacteria, Ideonella Sakaiensis, that was capable of eating plastic at a waste dump in Japan. This bacterial strain feeds exclusively on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, which is the main type of plastic used in plastic bottles. Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, UK, led a research team of scientists keen on identifying the evolution of the PETase gene, the gene that codes for a particular enzyme that breaks down the plastic. When isolating and testing the enzyme, the researchers accidentally tweaked the molecule and improved its functionality, which sped up the plastic break down. The mutant enzyme began to break down plastic within a few days, rather than the centuries it takes for plastic to decompose naturally. The research team is optimistic that they can increase the enzyme's ability to consume plastic and hopes that industrial methods will allow for the scaling up of PETase to tackle global pollution problems (Carrington, 2018).


The increased functionality of the PETase gene, and scientists’ continuing interest in the utilization of this enzyme to combat a growing environmental challenge, is the central reason that I believe PETase is worth being featured in this month’s publication: “The Best of 2018.” While there is much left to discover, regarding PETase and its potential for global distribution in order to tackle plastic pollution, my hope is that 2019 can see scientists expand laboratory trials to with the goal of answering many of the linger questions regarding the efficacy of PETase and any long-term repercussions on the environment.


Resources:


Carrington, D. (2018, April 16). Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles. Retrieved November 23, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/16/scientists-accidentally-create-mutant-enzyme-that-eats-plastic-bottles

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