The natural enzyme is in a bacterium called Ideonella sakaiensis, which researchers recently found was degrading PET in a Japanese waste recycling center.
Now we have details of the newly engineered and more efficient version of that enzyme.
The enzyme is able to digest polyethylene terephthalate, or PET - a form of plastic patented in the 1940s and now used in millions of tons of plastic bottles.
"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", John McGeehan, a structural biologist from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, said. "It's great and a real finding", McGeehan added.
The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to quickly break down plastics. What's worse, we know that more than 90% of the plastics ever created have not been recycled - there's simply too much plastic for us to recycle away the problem. Marine life is choking on it. "It is incredibly resistant to degradation".
"It is a modest improvement - 20 percent better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan.
However, now even those bottles that are recycled can only be turned into opaque fibres for clothing or carpets.
The mutant enzyme is on another level when it comes to the speed needed to break down a plastic bottle as tests show it can eliminate it in a matter of days, compared with nature which would take centuries. But I believe there is a public driver here: "perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these".
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The full results of the study will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. During this study, they unintentionally engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that has already evolved. During testing, the team unexpectedly improved the enzymes plastic-digesting abilities. "It's incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimized".
He said the enzyme needs to be made to act even faster to make the process commerically viable but is confident that can be done, potentially in as little as five years, now that they understand how the process works.
While they didn't expect it, this adjustment ended up showing the enzyme could still be further optimised in terms of breaking down plastics. But bacteria are far easier to harness for industrial uses.
PET, the strong plastic commonly used in bottles, takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment.
They found the first ones in Japan.
Independent scientists not directly involved with the research said it was exciting, but they cautioned that the enzyme's development as a potential solution for pollution was still at an early stage.
"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University.