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Scientists accidentally create a plastic eating mutant that could save the environment

Posted by
Tom Victor
Published
science

Some of the best creations in the world occurred purely by accident.

You know the sort of thing: penicillin; fireworks; Dennis Bergkamp’s turn for that goal against Newcastle United.

And now we have another addition to the list, after scientists accidentally engineered an enzyme capable of digesting the plastic used in plastic bottles.

Approximately 70% of packaging used for bottled water and fruit juices contains the notoriously hard-to-break-down plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Plastic items can take literally hundreds of years to decompose, according to many estimates, but scientists from Portsmouth University have accidentally uncovered an enzyme capable of ‘eating’ your bottles in a tiny fraction of the time.

So, if you’re the sort of person who tries not to worry too much about the future and just figures everything will find a way of sorting itself out, you may be in luck.

recycling

According to Sky News, the new enzyme has a “supercharged ability” to break down PET, but the scientists at Portsmouth University who developed it weren’t planning on that outcome.

They were reportedly conducting research into the molecular structure of PETase, a natural enzyme used by bacteria in Japan to feed on plastic, when they accidentally synthesised the new ‘mutant protein’.

“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,” Portsmouth University professor John McGeehan said.

“Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics,” Professor McGeehan added.

Despite knowing the potential environmental damaged caused by the repeated use of plastic bottles, plenty of us still aren’t going cold turkey, so the idea that the potential damage might not be as permanent as we thought surely has to count as good news.

It’s a small step, sure, but many will hope this is just the start of a path towards a more permanent solution.

(Images: Pexels/Getty)