The Plastic-Eating Enzyme that Can Save Oceans
by Julian on April 17, 2018 - 4:52pm
Scientists have created a mutant enzyme capable of eating plastic bottles. This discovery is a major breakthrough for environmentalists since it could solve the global plastic pollution crisis. Initially, in 2016, a team of Japanese researchers found a specie of bacteria that can break down the molecular bonds of one of the most commonly used plastic in the world, polyethylene terephthalate, also known as polyester or PET. Then, two years later, Prof John McGeehan, from the University of Portsmouth, UK, led a research on the enzyme produced by the plastic-eating bacteria. By tweaking the enzyme to observe how it involved within the bacteria, McGeehan’s team accidentally made the molecule even more proficient at breaking down polyester used for soft drink bottles. The modified mutant enzyme of the bacteria can now take up to only a few days to break down bottle PET, compared to the oceans who might take centuries. Once the plastic is decomposed into its original components by the bacteria, it can be recycled back again into plastic bottles, carpets, or clothing. Consequently, there is no need to produce new plastic. McGeehan feels very relieved by his surprising finding because plastic is very resistant to degradation. Furthermore, it spreads in even the remotest parts of the oceans to target all marine life and potentially people who eat seafood. Despite his technological advancement, McGeehan points out that the polyester-eating enzyme can be further optimised. For instance, the enzyme could be transplanted into an extremophile bacteria that can survive above the melting temperature of PET. The enzyme would then be able to degrade the molten polyester 10 to 100 times faster. Moreover, McGeehan envisions a promising future for enzyme technology in the face of the growing pollution crisis. After all, enzymes are convenient since they are non-toxic, biodegradable, and they can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms. Nonetheless, reducing plastic consumption in the first place would still be preferable. Lastly, Prof. Adisa Azapagic, from the University of Manchester,UK, warns that a full life-cycle assessment would be needed in order to verify that enzyme technology does not solve one environmental problem such as waste, at the expense of others like additional greenhouse gas emissions.
I find that technology can sometimes work wonders when it comes to addressing environmental issues. The use of plastic-eating enzyme sounds convenient and useful. However, there is always certain drawbacks to the integration of external human factors on an ecosystem. For example, the enzyme may consume polyester, but it could also consume other species of plants that are limiting factors for the ecosystem’s marine fauna and flora. A full life-cycle assessment is therefore required to evaluate the potential negative consequences of enzyme technology.