Scientists have discovered an enzyme that can degrade some of the most common plastics on earth, according to a study published Tuesday.
The enzyme, which was accidentally discovered while scientists were manipulating a naturally occurring enzyme known as PETase, could be a breakthrough in reducing the amount of non-biodegradable plastic that remains in environments for centuries.
The study was led by scientists at the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. The discovery was announced in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Scientists were studying an enzyme found at a Japanese recycling center that they believed would break down items made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.
PET, invented in the 1940s, is commonly found in millions of plastic bottles. The team inadvertently manipulated the enzyme to make it even more efficient in breaking down PET.
“After just 96 hours you can see clearly via electron microscopy that the PETase is degrading PET,” said NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe in a statement. “And this test is using real examples of what is found in the oceans and landfills.”
By Barry Eitel in San Francisco