Scientists accidentally engineer mutant bacteria that gorges on plastic bottles

It's not a solution yet, but perhaps the start of one.

A few years ago, at an Osaka, Japan recycling plant, scientists discovered a bacteria called Ideonella sakaiensis that eats one of the most common forms of plastic, known as polyethylene terephthalate or PET. That form of plastic is found in water bottles, food containers, and polyester. You know the items with the “1” symbol in your recycling bin? Those tend to be made of PET. 


Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) were trying to model the enzyme and ended up with a mutant strain of the same thing, with a crucial difference: it eats plastic even better.

"We hoped to determine its structure to aid in protein engineering, but we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics," said NREL's lead researcher Gregg Beckham

University of Portsmouth professor John McGeehan, who conducted the research with Beckham, went even further in a statement.

“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.”

There’s speculation that, with further mutations, the PETase mutant enzyme might even be used to degrade/eat the newer kinds of plastic known as Polyethylene furandicarboxylate or PEF. 

It’s at least a promising beginning in this field of study.  

And here's author Laurence Gonzales on our culture of garbage.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

26 ultra-rich people own as much as the world's 3.8 billion poorest

The Oxfam report prompted Anand Giridharadas to tweet: "Don't be Pinkered into everything's-getting-better complacency."

Getty Images and Wikimedia Commons
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new report by Oxfam argues that wealth inequality is causing poverty and misery around the world.
  • In the last year, the world's billionaires saw their wealth increase by 12%, while the poorest 3.8 billion people on the planet lost 11% of their wealth.
  • The report prompted Anand Giridharadas to tweet: "Don't be Pinkered into everything's-getting-better complacency." We explain what Steven Pinker's got to do with it.
Keep reading Show less

People who constantly complain are harmful to your health

Moans, groans, and gripes release stress hormones in the brain.

Photo credit: Getty Images / Stringer
popular

Could you give up complaining for a whole month? That's the crux of this interesting piece by Jessica Hullinger over at Fast Company. Hullinger explores the reasons why humans are so predisposed to griping and why, despite these predispositions, we should all try to complain less. As for no complaining for a month, that was the goal for people enrolled in the Complaint Restraint project.

Participants sought to go the entirety of February without so much as a moan, groan, or bellyache.

Keep reading Show less
Videos
  • Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
  • Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
  • But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
Keep reading Show less