The team's finding was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Diamond Light Source, a United Kingdom based lab that gives scientists access to a powerful microscope showed the researchers the structure of the enzyme.
The interesting thing about this naturally-occurring enzyme is that it used to eat away polyesters present on leaves, but evolved over time to ingest PET (a class of polyesters) as well.
In general, one doesn't want scientists in a lab to accidentally create mutant things with appetites.
Professor McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: "The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels - the technology exists and it's well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET and potentially other substrates like PEF, PLA, and PBS, back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled". "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment", McGeehan was quoted as saying.
PET is favored for its lightweight, colorless, and durable properties that make it an ideal material for water bottles, plastic trays, blister packaging, and polyester clothing. The engineered enzyme represents the first option to recycle plastic bottles entirely with no apparent risk. "We'd actually have proper recycling", McGeehan told BBC News.
The enzyme takes a few days to begin breaking down the plastic, and researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not. But while manipulating the enzyme, the worldwide team inadvertently improved its ability to devour plastic.
"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan. But bacteria are far easier to harness for industrial uses.
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.
"It does only focus on one type of plastic".
Chemist Oliver Jones of RMIT University, who wasn't part of the research, told The Guardian this work is exciting, and that enzymes are biodegradable, non-toxic, and microorganisms can produce them in big quantities. With the new enzyme, PET could be efficiently broken down and used again.