They found the first ones in Japan. Hidden in the soil at a plastics recycling plant, researchers unearthed a microbe that had evolved to eat the soda bottles dominating its habitat, after you and I throw them away.
That discovery was announced in 2016, and scientists have now gone one better. While examining how the Japanese bug breaks down plastic, they accidentally created a mutant enzyme that outperforms the natural bacteria, and further tweaks could offer a vital solution to humanity’s colossal plastics problem.
“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,” says structural biologist John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth in the UK.
“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.”
The findings are reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link down at time of writing).
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