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Plastic-Eating Serendipity

Plastic-Eating Serendipity

Accidental discoveries, the world of science is full of them. Every secondary school teacher will have reminded you that it’s okay to make mistakes in science, and then they’ll bring up the example of Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin. That is the most famous example, but, in fact, the range of products born from accidents is shocking: from explosives to adhesives, from corn flakes to viagra, from the slinky to the pacemaker.

One of the most influential scientific accidents was made in 1907 by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland. He was attempting to produce a replacement for shellac, a resin secreted by bugs. Due to the resin being solely excreted by South Asian beetles, it was very expensive. He tried combining phenol with formaldehyde, and managed to produce a form of plastic which became known as Bakelite. Plastic has since gone on to change the modern world, present in every aspect of our lives, and increasingly our environment. Huge efforts have been made in recent years to raise awareness of the damage caused by plastics, particularly single-use plastics on the wider environment, and particularly marine ecosystems.

110 years after the accidental discovery of Bakelite, another accident has given a new avenue of hope for reversing some of the damage inflicted on the planet by plastic. Researchers from the University of Portsmouth accidentally made an enzyme that is effective at degrading plastic. In 2016 the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis found outside a bottle-recycling facility in Japan was discovered to have naturally evolved to degrade a commonly used plastic. The discovery sparked interest in the potential for this bacteria to be used in the recycling and degradation of plastic waste.

It is yet to be seen whether this knowledge can be scaled to an effective form of plastic recycling, and undoubtedly reducing the use of plastics is still preferable to industrial processes, but this discovery could potentially provide an avenue for cleaning up the plastic tide in the future.

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