Scientists accidentally discovered a mutant enzyme that could help the world eliminate plastic waste

  • Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that can digest common plastics.
  • Researchers were looking at an existing enzyme found naturally in landfills.
  • In the process they inadvertently created a new, more effective version.
  • The new enzyme can fully eat up PET, the plastic used in bottled water and soft drinks.
  • It could drastically reduce the time needed for plastic to fully decompose.


Scientists have accidentally discovered a mutant enzyme that can fully eat up and decompose common plastic, and could help the world solve the problem of plastic waste.

Researchers in the US and UK examined an existing enzyme which had occurred naturally in landfill sites and was able to slowly digest man-made plastics.

But in the course of testing the enzyme's origins, the researchers made biological changes to it that turbo-charged its ability to digest plastics, according to Britain's University of Portsmouth.

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They can release harmful chemicals into your water

Plastics are made to withstand a variety of temperatures -- but at a cost. The hotter the bottle gets, the more potential there is to release chemicals known to cause diseases like cancer, especially if you use them over and over again. 

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Chemicals in the plastic may make having a baby more difficult

Those same chemicals in the plastic, like BPA, could make having a baby more difficult by affecting fertility. Researchers found that men and women undergoing in-vitro fertilization who had high levels of BPA in their blood, urine, and work environment were less likely to have a successful pregnancy. This is according to a 2013 review of 91 studies published in Reproductive Toxicology

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It could raise your risk of heart disease and other circulatory issues

Humans exposed to the highest levels of BPA have an increased risk of heart disease, according to a 2012 study published in Circulation. Researchers think this could be due to BPA's link to high blood pressure. 

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Refilling plastic bottles may expose you to harmful bacteria 

Both reusable and disposal plastic bottles break down from regular use over time, meaning that even teeny cracks can welcome in bacteria, according to an article published in journal Practical Gastroenterology. And while most bacteria is usually harmless, bottles can harbor norovirus-, cold-, and flu-causing bacteria. And while usually we'd advise you to wash with hot water and soap, that could cause the plastic to break down even more!

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They're awful for the environment (Duh!)

Many of the bottles are still ending up in the garbage even after they are recycled once. The solution? At home filters. Or bottles made of steel, aluminum or polycarbonate because as they say it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

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According to The Guardian, the enzyme starts breaking down plastic in a matter of days, a process which would take centuries under normal conditions.

The enzyme is called PETase, because it eats polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the lightweight plastic used in bottled water and soft drinks.

Professor John McGeehan, one of the scientists leading the study, said:

Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception.

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.

The mutant enzyme is still in its early stages, and the scientists are now working on developing it for use on an industrial scale.

Right now, plastic bottles that are recycled can only be turned into opaque fibres, which can then be used to make clothes or carpets. A more effective method would enable recycled plastic to be put to a far wider variety of uses.

About 8.3 billion tonnes (9.1 billion tons/8,300 billion kg) of plastic has been produced since production began about 70 years ago. Around 6.3 billion tonnes (6.9 billion tons/6,300 billion kg) is waste, the BBC reported.

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