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New 'Mutant Enzymes' Could Solve Earth's Plastics Problem

Scientists accidentally created an enzyme that can break down plastic. But is it any better than recycling?
The world produced a million plastic bottle every minute, and roughly 10 percent of it gets recycled.
The world produced a million plastic bottle every minute, and roughly 10 percent of it gets recycled.Henry Romero/Reuters

You might call it a happy accident: As environmentalists urge the world to address the plastic pollution crisis, a team of researchers has unwittingly engineered an enzyme that may, one day, literally eat our troubles away.

Biologists at the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth were studying the structure of an enzyme that can break down polyester when they found a way to tweak it. The result, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, is a “mutant enzyme” that can degrade plastics 20 percent more efficiently than its original form.