The global team involved in researching how the bacterium developed, exactly, did so by messing with the enzyme it uses to break down PET (the polymer used in plastic bottles) and in so doing created a mutated version that breaks down plastic even more efficiently.
Diamond Light Source, a United Kingdom based lab that gives scientists access to a powerful microscope showed the researchers the structure of the enzyme.
"[PET] has only been around in vast quantities over the last 50 years, so it's actually not a very long timescale for a bacteria to have evolved to eat something so man-made", John McGeehan, leader of the research team that improved the enzyme told BBC News.
While focusing on the structure, the researchers accidentally created a more efficient mutant enzyme that was 20 percent better at breaking down PET.
"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, who was also involved in the study.
"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.
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PET, invented in the 1940s, is commonly found in millions of plastic bottles.
The enzyme now has the ability to break down the plastic in a matter of days, as opposed to the centuries it would take to naturally degrade in the ocean.
One of the most exciting implications of the new research and the evolution of the enzyme is the way it could drastically improve plastic recycling. PET sinks in seawater but some scientists have conjectured that plastic-eating bugs might one day be sprayed on the huge plastic garbage patches in the oceans to clean them up. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle".
Researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme found in a waste recycling center a few years ago in Japan. The improvement was modest, but the scientists believe bigger improvements are possible by modifying the protein portion of the enzyme.
Other types of plastic could be broken down by bacteria currently evolving in the environment, McGeehan said: "People are now searching vigorously for those". "The enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large quantities by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a chemistry expert at the University of Melbourne. PET has only been widely used since the 1970s, so the bacterium had evolved at breakneck speed to use the new food source. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction". And obviously, reducing the production and use of single-use plastics in the first place can't be emphasized enough.