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Earth Science

Scientists Accidentally Create Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic Bottles (theguardian.com) 219

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles -- by accident. The breakthrough could help solve the global plastic pollution crisis by enabling for the first time the full recycling of bottles. From a report: The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme produced by the bug. The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. "What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock," said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. "It's great and a real finding." The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic -- far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

Scientists Accidentally Create Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic Bottles

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  • by dlingman ( 1757250 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @04:54PM (#56448217)

    If it gets loose, will it eat the bottles on the shelves? Will it also eat the fleece jackets made from recycled PET bottles?

    • by TeknoHog ( 164938 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:06PM (#56448309) Homepage Journal
      I remember news about plastic-eating bacteria back in the 90s. The local newspaper had a cartoon with bugs munching on credit cards.
    • ..or eat the plastics on an airplane in flight, causing it to crash? Or anything else synthetic?
        • Oh man, I haven't seen that movie in ages. That would be a much better movie for a remake than all the insipid crap Hollywood has been recycling for the last three decades.

          • by meglon ( 1001833 )
            ....and yet, it wasn't (in my opinion) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt04... [imdb.com]
            • Oh man, I haven't seen that movie in ages. That would be a much better movie for a remake than all the insipid crap Hollywood

              ....and yet, it wasn't (in my opinion) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt04 [imdb.com]... [imdb.com]

              Thx for the link. I lost track of the remake after hearing one rumor. Never bothered to follow up. At least it had Viola Davis. Was it any good? If not, you can't blame Michael Crichton.

              • by meglon ( 1001833 )
                It's so-so. Being older, the original made it's impact on me... so a remake is going to have to be really good for me to give it a nod. This one i didn't feel lived up to it, but i'm obviously biased a bit. It wasn't horrible, and if you find yourself with a couple hours to kill... well... it's certainly better than a lot of remakes (virtually all remakes). that Holliywood has turned out the past couple decades; the bar is low there, though.
                • "the bar" for me is Aliens. More of an extension than a remake. Is "Apocalypse Now" considered a remake of "Lord Jim"? John Carpenter's "The Thing" was much cooler than James Arness staggering around in the original. "The Ten Commandments" (DeMille's '56 do-over on his '23 version.) "Ben Hur" (the '59 version). "The Maltese Falcon" (Huston's '41 version).
        • You beat me but bouched the link description -- eating plastics, exactly right. But if you click on a random link without examining it you might go to Goatse or someplace [shockchan.com]... unlike this: The Andromeda Strain (1971) [imdb.com]

          NOTE: That first link doesn't actually go to Goatse, but it begins down that path with suitable warnings. "Shock sites are what make the internet fun." I suggest that you NOT go there but watch The Andromeda Strain. Really. It's probably on YT -- isn't everything? If not, I'm sure it'll
      • ... Or anything else synthetic?

        Trump's hair?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:08PM (#56448327)

      Scientists have created a mutant enzyme,

      I'm pretty sure this is how a zombie apocalypse starts.

      • by e3m4n ( 947977 )

        yep, and out of control it will start attacking artificial heart valves, stints, IUDs and just about every other non-junk application of plastics. Now it will just take some other scientist to make some bacteria that secretes this enzyme as a bi-product.

    • It's fun to imagine the mayhem if it also eats vinyl: Vinyl siding. Vinyl windows. Vapor barriers. Drain and sewer pipes (and some supply pipes). Electrical insulation. And thats just a basic modern home.
    • by Xtifr ( 1323 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:20PM (#56448431) Homepage

      If the enzyme gets loose? You do know what an enzyme is, don't you?

      The bacteria which produced the precursor is already loose--it was a naturally occurring beast. Just how dangerous it is remains to be seen. It's worth worrying about.

      But this new enzyme? It's true that enzymes aren't destroyed by their processes--that's one of their defining features--but they also don't move by themselves, so they're not going to "eat" anything they're not actively placed on. Nor do they reproduce. I think we're pretty safe.

      I mean, sulfuric acid will also eat many plastics. Do you worry about sulfuric acid "getting loose" and eating your fleece jacket?

      • so they're not going to "eat" anything they're not actively placed on. Nor do they reproduce. I think we're pretty safe.

        Right up until someone slips the enzyme into the de-icing spray at the airport... ;-)

        • by Xtifr ( 1323 )

          They could do the same thing with H2SO4, which is a whole lot cheaper, and isn't limited to affecting PETs. I don't see why one is a worry and the other not.

      • It could very well get loose.

        The issue is with how the mutant enzyme is made. I must note that I have not been able to find the paper this article was about(link in article does not work), but it is quite likely that they made their mutant enzyme by modifying the DNA sequence of original enzyme and putting that into some microorganism. The enzyme itself does not replicate, but the microorganism they used to make sufficient quantities of enzyme does. That could escape.

        Whether this is an issue is another prob

      • by meglon ( 1001833 )

        Do you worry about sulfuric acid "getting loose" and eating your fleece jacket?

        Well i wasn't until NOW!!! Thanks!!!111!!!!

      • by epine ( 68316 )

        If the enzyme gets loose? You do know what an enzyme is, don't you?

        Ah, you do know that it's an enzyme from an Asian bacterium, don't you?

        Of course, we all know in our bones that somehow those Asian bacteria have a biological copy shop for anything out there in the world they want to make their own.

        How has this escaped notice by our microbiologists so far? Good question. I'm glad you asked.

        Well, we haven't noticed the bacterial copy shop capability yet, because the blueprint is usually available (the origin

    • Uh-oh..As a boater, will I now have to worry about polyestermites while I'm at sea?
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      How does an enzyme get loose? Remember, an enzyme is just a biology term for a catalyst. Yes, the action can be slightly different. But the key thing is that an enzyme is not alive. It is not a bacteria. It doesn't replicate on its own. It has to be replicated through a process. So how does it get loose? If you spill some, it breaks down the plastic it landed on. That's it.
    • by allcoolnameswheretak ( 1102727 ) on Tuesday April 17, 2018 @07:36AM (#56451205)

      My shiny, expensive LEGO collection!?! =-O


    • by wallsg ( 58203 )

      If it gets loose, will it eat the bottles on the shelves? Will it also eat the fleece jackets made from recycled PET bottles?

      I read that book a long time ago:

      Mutant 59: The Plastic-Eaters [amazon.com]

    • by anegg ( 1390659 )

      This reminds me of the bacterium designed to break down the room temperature superconductors used on the Ringworld by the Puppeteers to eliminate the threat that they believed the inhabitants of the Ringworld posed to them. I hope that the tech people involved are smart enough to make sure the enzyme is controllable so that it only eats up waste plastics. Too much of our society is plastic-based at this point.

      For the edification of those who don't recognize the reference, http://www.larryniven.net/puppet [larryniven.net]

  • by Anonymous Coward


  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2018 @04:59PM (#56448255)

    Plastics evolve antibodies to fight off plastic-eating bacteria.

    • Then they'll spray this enzyme indiscriminately, killing off all the other plastics until the more highly evolved plastics are the only ones left. After that, they are coming for you and me, brother!

  • One question (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jenningsthecat ( 1525947 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:03PM (#56448291)

    Does the enzyme release CO2, (or any other greenhouse gases), while it's breaking down the plastic?

    • Re:One question (Score:4, Informative)

      by Tinsoldier314 ( 3811439 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:13PM (#56448365)
      Quick bit of research suggests it breaks down into terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. http://science.sciencemag.org/... [sciencemag.org]. The former is a precursor to the production of fresh PET https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
      • Re:One question (Score:5, Informative)

        by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:38PM (#56448573)
        The paper claims that the breakdown products are "environmentally benign". While terephthalic acid doesn't seem to be a problem, ethylene glycol is reasonably toxic. It is also a danger to pets and children because of its sweet taste, and it is commonly found in anti-freeze. Dogs and children will lap the stuff up if they encounter a spill and can die from that.

        From the wiki article on "deicing fluid" [wikipedia.org]:

        Ethylene glycol and propylene glycol are known to exert high levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) during degradation in surface waters. Large quantities of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water column are consumed when microbial populations decompose propylene glycol.[8]:2-23 This process can adversely affect other aquatic life by consuming oxygen needed for their survival.

        Airports that use this stuff are required to have capture processes to keep this from the ground water. It doesn't sound so environmentally benign to me. The only reasons these two precursors are less dangerous is because they aren't lumps of (previously thought) poorly-bio-degradable plastic.

        I was also going to point to Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters, but someone beat me to it.

        • Re:One question (Score:5, Informative)

          by jbengt ( 874751 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @07:27PM (#56449109)
          While ethylene glycol is considered toxic and propylene glycol is a food additive, both break down quickly in soils, unless the burden is so great that oxygen deprivation becomes a factor, as noted in the quote above.
          Most airports (at least those I've done work for) don't do anything special to contain the runoff from deicing, other than to not discharge it to storm sewers leading to rivers and lakes.
          Also, airports don't use ethylene glycol, they use propylene glycol for deicing. (For anti-icing, they use propylene glycol-based fluids modified to have high viscosity at low shear rates and low viscosity at high shear rates: that way it stays on the wings until the plane gets near takeoff speed.)
        • by abies ( 607076 )

          Dogs and children will lap the stuff up if they encounter a spill [...]

          My child must be bit different then - she is not lapping puddles of random stuff near waste recycling plants in hope it might be sweet.

          Maybe this is more dangerous for children raised on the progressive, 'no-sweets' diet? Are they desperate enough to lap everything looking for sweets?

    • Re:One question (Score:4, Informative)

      by viperidaenz ( 2515578 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:13PM (#56448367)

      If you consider that PET is comprised solely of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, then yes, it probably does.

      Like anything that breaks down hydrocarbons. Including you when you breathe.

    • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

      If so, they could pump that waste CO2 into biodiesel reactors. Plastic to fuel!

    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      Why does it matter? The threat of plastic is much worse than the threat of CO2. While you guys worry about CO2, I worry about localized polluted waterways and endless landfills leaching toxic materials.
    • by bazorg ( 911295 )

      No, the only byproduct is plutonium.

  • How many inventions were the result of accidents? Microwave ovens? Telephone?
  • This is the precursor to the great plastic plague of 2020

  • So the churches have been wrong all along. The end of things won't be a fiery death but everything dissolving into the classical grey goo syndrome. Imagine if this got loose in a hospital, all the tubes and plastic based equipment dissolving around the patients and doctors.

    • Somehow hospitals have survived the existence of enzymes that eat flesh without the patients and staff all turning to goo. The wooden parts of the buildings have managed not to turn to goo despite wood eating enzymes existing.

  • Enzyme + PET equals what exactly? Surely not nothing. Hopefully something harmless.

  • I can see endless military applications.

  • This is fantastic! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:30PM (#56448505)

    I knew nature was going to catch on eventually (long before the "thousands of years to decay" prediction) and I'm glad it has. Plastics are nice but the half-life of the products they are used in are astonishingly short. My hope is that we will be able to spray trash with a variety of monocelluar critters and it will turn it into various gases that can be harvested and used for something else. Once they have done their job, they'll leave a biosludge and elemental components like metals that can be reclaimed. The sludge will make a great fertilizer.

    I hope people realize this is a good thing rather than flailing nonsensically about how their iphone is going to fall apart.

  • Kill it now! I don't want want retro 8-bit gizmos disappearing into a puddle of bacteria poop!
  • by Xtifr ( 1323 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:37PM (#56448555) Homepage

    I think some people are being confused by the use of the term "mutant" in the headline. This is not a creature. It doesn't reproduce. It's a chemical. You can worry about spills, but it's never going to be a plague.

    The bacteria it was derived from might become a plague, but that's an already-existing worry, since it's a naturally occurring critter which is already out there in the wild. But this is just stuff. If it "gets loose", it'll just sit there. At worst, it might contaminate the groundwater or something, but that's true of a lot of other chemicals.

  • Why not just burn all that shit? No silly enzymes or science required.

    • by slew ( 2918 )

      Why not just burn all that shit? No silly enzymes or science required.

      The reason they don't just "burn all that shit" is that they are interested in a way to break down the PET back to it's polymer pre-cursors so they can repolymerize it back into plastic again to improve recycling. By recovering the original pre-cursors, they can more effectively recycle the plastic.

      The current recycle flow for PET is a bit costly to produce back food-grade plastic (vs simply using virgin material) because of the use of dye, color sorting is required before melting, so often PET is open-loo

      • "...even today we don't "burn all that shit", we open-loop recycle"

        Nope. I burn it. It sounds dangerous but it isn't. So long as you squish all that shit into the holes in the middle of old tires it is easy to arrange and position as you like. If it's not too windy you can even move it while it's still burning. And when all you have left is some steel wire loops and sticky residue you just flip it up and roll it into the river. Gravity is free and also fully eco.

  • For example, electric wire insulation... I'm assuming this bacteria will go pretty slowly, not having a negative impact on all the disposable stuff we go through. However, there are lots of plastic uses that are expected to maintain their integrity for decades, in places that can't/won't be checked or replaced.

  • by CaptainDork ( 3678879 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @07:56PM (#56449261)

    Sorry, not sorry for exploiting low hanging fruit.

  • “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 McGeehan

    That's currently a wish. What are the current byproducts, are they toxic and can they be economically reprocessed into something? The key word here is "economically". It it costs less, then any downside with health or environmental issues take a backseat.

  • I for one would like to welcome our plastic munching Enzyme accidental Overlords. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Better than fire?

  • So what waste products are created by the enzyme? Is the waste easily dealt with or have any value as a product of the reaction?
    • “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 McGeehan. “It means we won’t need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment.”

Loose bits sink chips.