The environmental damage plastic pollution is causing is a very hot topic and so it should be. It is a worldwide issue and a solution needs to be found to stem the problem before it is too late.

This is where research and development is really needed to find a solution and like all great R&D projects a little bit of accidental luck is always welcomed.

“Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident.” This quote from Mark Twain pretty much sums up the latest scientific discovery in the field of plastic recycling.

The second series of the BBC’s Blue Planet last year, concluding with Sir David Attenborough’s serious message about our oceans’ health, increased awareness of plastic pollution hugely. But scientists have been working on a way to decompose plastic for some time. In 2016, in Japan, scientists discovered a new bacterium, called Ideonella sakaiensis, that had evolved naturally to eat plastic. It was found at a waste dump and called PETase as it eats the polyethylene terephthalate in plastic bottles.

This is a classic example of where a research and development project has found a solution to a problem from an unexpected discovery.

What did it eat before plastic?

PET is under the umbrella of ‘polyesters’ which exist naturally as a shield for plants’ leaves. Professor McGeehan, the lead researcher on the PETase project said: “Bacteria have been evolving for millions of years to eat that.” But it was “quite unexpected” that the enzyme would evolve to digest PET in only 50 years.

What accidental discovery did they make?

At the University of Portsmouth science department, follow up experiments were being done to find out how this new bacteria evolved and to replicate the initial findings. During this process, one of the scientists altered the part of its structure relating to digesting plastic with significant (and totally accidental) results. Not only did the manipulation of the bacterium’s structure improve the speed at which it digests PET, it gave it the additional super power of also being able to eat PEF (a different type of plastic).

Why is this a potentially planet saving scientific advance?

As we know, the plastic clogging up our seas takes hundreds of years to break down in the water. After all, when it was first invented, plastic’s initial selling point was as a material that would last forever. As they have evolved in nature, this newly discovered bacterium begins to digest plastic after only a few days. It is hope that the accidental revelation at Portsmouth University could lead to more increases in speed and perhaps an industrial answer to our entirely manmade plastic pollution disaster.

Professor McGeehan summarises:

“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.”

Research and Development

If you have been involved in a project (or are planning one in the future) which is trying to find the solution to a problem you should consider the governments R&D tax credits scheme which provides financial funding to a whole host of industries. The government want you to claim it and it’s value could be very important to the success of you what you are trying to develop.


Jamie Smith