As the scientists write in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they hoped to get a clearer picture of how the new mechanism evolved by tweaking the enzyme in the lab.
In the midst of their studies, the scientists accidentally created a super enzyme that is derived from the bacteria - except it is even stronger than the original.
"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said Professor McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth.
"What we really need are system changes to reduce the volume of throwaway plastic packaging and make sure plastic drinks bottles are collected and separated effectively", said Edge.
But this new finding suggests a way to turn plastic bottles back into plastic bottles.
Currently, we buy around 1,000,000 plastic bottles each minute around the world.
"We originally set out to determine how this enzyme evolved from breaking down cutin - the waxy substance on the surface of plants - with cutinase, to degrading synthetic PET with PETase", said NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe.
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The mutated enzyme could be used to break down plastic bottles to their original materials.
While working to solve the crystal structure of PETase-a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET-the team inadvertently engineered an enzyme to be even better at degrading the man-made substance. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not.
While the invention of highly durable plastics has had positive impacts for humankind's quality of life, it's that very durability that is causing the plastics pollution problem.
Using a synchrotron particle accelerator, the researchers, in collaboration with Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom, used intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to view the individual atoms making up PETase.
"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan. But while manipulating the enzyme, the worldwide team inadvertently improved its ability to devour plastic. Because it's virtually invincible against microbes, however, the plastic never degrades, making it a pollutant scourge on the environment.
McGeehan worked with researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And obviously, reducing the production and use of single-use plastics in the first place can't be emphasized enough. With the new enzyme, PET could be efficiently broken down and used again.