However, while studying how the bug breaks down plastics, the researchers accidentally created a mutant enzyme that performs even better than the original bacteria. It was hailed as a potential breakthrough at the time.
Researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme thought to have evolved in a waste recycling center in Japan.
NREL and the University of Portsmouth collaborated closely with a multidisciplinary research team at the Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom, a large synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms. The structure of the enzyme is similar to the one used by some bacteria to digest cutin, a natural protective coating that grows on plants.
"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 Dr. John McGeehan, who co-led the research.
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"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", McGeehan noted, according to the University of Portsmouth press release.
The microbe uses an enzyme called PETase to break down the plastic it consumes. This process takes just a few days.
To begin experiments, the research team wanted to find out exactly how effective PETase was at digesting PET. NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe and postdoctoral researcher Nic Rorrer tested PETase by taking samples of PET from the soda bottles in Beckham's office and ran an experiment with PETase. That's 200,000 every second. A record time, far from the years, even centuries, that plastic now takes to destroy itself in the open air.
The NREL underscored the urgency of the work, pointing out that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste, including PET bottles, enter the oceans each year, creating huge man-made islands of garbage.
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The researchers then mutated PETase so that it was more like cutinase.
Some companies that rely on PET have committed to do more.
But progress is slow, partly because big businesses have aesthetic concerns about bottles made from 100-percent recycled plastic. Environmentalists say there's still a long way to go. "This is likely to be a slow process".
"What we really need are system changes to reduce the volume of throwaway plastic packaging and make sure plastic drinks bottles are collected and separated effectively", said Edge.
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