Science Rocks features AbbVie employees who share interesting research and why it matters. In this month's feature, Joel Melnick, executive medical director of general medicine, AbbVie, shares an article about an enzyme that may be able to break down some of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic that has been clogging up the world’s landfills for decades.
Found deep in a Japanese landfill, scientists may have discovered the solution to one of our most serious pollution problems – a modified enzyme that can digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common plastic in our landfills, which takes hundreds of years to break down.
It all started back in 2016 when a group of Japanese scientists started researching whether plastic can be degraded. They hypothesized that the best place to research this topic would be the local landfill where they obtained 250 samples of the soil near a bottle recycling factory in Osaka, Japan. They then identified a sample and purified it to find the component that best digested the PET film and identified a new species of bacteria. They grew a pure culture and found this bacterium completely degraded the PET film in just over a month.
Over the next two years, other scientific groups have tried to understand the way the protein worked. Just recently, one of these scientific groups used a high-resolution X-ray to identify individual amino acids responsible for digesting PET and degrading the plastic. He then adjusted the amino acids to speed up the degradation from a month to a few days.
So it turns out many scientific answers are right under our noses – or in this case – at a refuse site. All we have to do is look for them. Does this discovery mean that we can trash as much plastic as we want? Not quite. We already have a 70-year backlog of plastic trash that needs to be recycled. So, we have some catching up to do. On the positive side, it only took Mother Nature 70 years to create a new bacteria species that uses our plastic waste as a nutrient. Other species that degrade plastic may evolve in the nearer term.