Scientists Accidently Discover An Enzyme That Can Eat Plastic


Plastic is a double-edged sword. We need plastic in our busy 21st-century lifestyle. Plastic is everywhere, and it’s even in places it shouldn’t be, like the oceans. At last count, there are 93,000 to 236,000 metric tons of plastic floating around in oceans, and up to now, no one knows how to get it out of oceans in a cost-effective and positive way. This sea of plastic threatens the animals and fish that depend on oceans for survival. But it also threatens a reliable source of healthy food. Eating fish with fragments of plastic in their aquatic genes is not the kind of food we need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Some people stop eating food from the sea because the floating sea of plastic seems to overwhelm and threaten their way of life.

But there is good plastic news coming from the scientific world. Scientists from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory found a natural enzyme in a waste recycling center in Japan. That enzyme has the ability to eat plastic. Scientists call the enzyme Ideonella sakaiensis 201 F-6. That incredible enzyme can eat PET or polyethylene terephthalate which is the patented name for plastic. PET is in millions of tons of water and soft drink bottles.

While scientist studied the structure of the enzyme, they accidentally produced an enzyme that was even better at eating plastic, according to Gregg Beckham. Beckham is one of the University of Portsmouth researchers who accidentally engineered an enzyme that can eat PET. That discovery could clean up millions of tons of plastic from the oceans, according to a recent CNN article.

Ideonella sakaiensis 201 F-6 is also capable of degrading polyethylene furandicarboxylate or PEF. PEF is a biological engineered-based substitution for PET plastic. Beer makers are using PEF instead of glass bottles. PEF is not biodegradable, so it ends up in landfills and in oceans.

The discovery of enzyme Ideonella sakaiensis 201 F-6 is still in its infancy. But University of Portsmouth scientists think there could be a recycling solution to the plastic issue if scientists can improve the enzyme enough to break down plastic quickly. Environmentalists believe there could be as much plastic in the oceans by 2050 as there are fish, in terms of mass. The great Pacific Ocean Floating Garbage Patch keeps growing. That mass of garbage is three times the size of France now. But Ideonella sakaiensis 201 F-6 and the enzymes that come from it could dramatically reduce the size of that man-made mess.