Sometimes the truth really is better than fiction. In this case, science fiction. So far, no author in the genre has predicted a bacterium that eats plastic. But, one of those evolved on its own in Japan, and in trying to figure out how that happened, scientists accidentally made it stronger. (Okay, there have been SciFi movies with that plot, but it rarely turns out well for humans and the planet.)
The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug.
The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. “What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock,” said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. “It’s great and a real finding.”…
“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” said McGeehan. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”
Wait…plastic isn’t completely recycled now? Really? The people who make the stuff have to start over every time? Hmm…
“You are always up against the fact that oil is cheap, so virgin PET is cheap,” said McGeehan. “It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle. But I believe there is a public driver here: perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these.”
At any rate, it looks like science is getting a little-unanticipated help from mother nature in the fight to keep the planet neat and tidy. Frankly, we’ll take all the help we can get.