More about plastic-eating organisms

In a recent post I shared a recently published scientific article that reported how a team of scientists have come up with a combination of enzymes that ‘eat’ plastic really fast.

This little factoid has generated a lot of interest – from readers of this blog as well as from the world.  In fact, a google search revealed several popular-science articles about these super plastic eating enzymes

I thought I’d share a little more information about these enzymes and also post a link to the best one that I found, here from Popular Mechanics.  It’s a pretty light read, so I encourage you to check it out.

But back to the super enzymes!

  1. How do they work again? 

If you recall from my last post, enzymes are proteins that work to accelerate chemical reactions.  Every organism, from plants to animals to bacteria produce all sorts of enzymes, but some of the most commons purposes enzymes are:   1) to modify other proteins, 2) to  manufacture other biological molecules like proteins or DNA, or 3) to break down (digest) things.

In their research report, the scientists describe how they have discovered a two enzyme system that breaks down plastic.  One of these enzymes helps to break down a very common plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into water dissolvable intermediate-size chunks.  The other, the newly discovered enzyme MHETase, can digest these intermediate chunks down even further to the smallest most elementary components of the plastic.

  1. Where do these enzymes come from? The lab?

Well, the scientists have studied them and refined them a little bit, but the fascinating thing is that these enzymes come from bacteria found in soil.  Yes, gentle reader, the introduction of plastics into practically every corner of our world has led multiple types of organisms to develop methods to break down plastic so they can use it for a carbon and energy source.  In other words, nature has evolved to find ways to ‘eat’ plastic, and our scientists are now trying to learn from nature to develop new ways to take care of plastic.

  1. So – where can we find some of these magic plastic eating enzymes?

Well, like most exciting discoveries from the lab, there is a long way to go before this discovery can be used widely.  There are possible consequences to releasing huge amounts of bacteria into our ecosystem.  One thing I can think of – is what if it starts attacking things that we want to keep intact – like pipes are things in our home?  The paper does have some recommendations on how to introduce these enzyme mixtures (possibly as purified products) into the plastics supply chain, but more research needs to be done.  For now, we can just be comforted -or not – by the thought that Nature will always find a way.

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