The researchers, from the United Kingdom and the U.S., made the discovery as they examined a naturally-occurring enzyme that evolved in a plastic disposal centre in Japan.
Researchers say they are now working on further improvements to the enzyme, with the hope of eventually scaling it up for industrial use in breaking down plastics.
Plastic pollution in the ocean.
Although said to be highly recyclable, PET persists for hundreds of years.
Known as Ideonella sakaiensis, it appears to feed exclusively on a type of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used widely in plastic bottles.
Japanese researchers believe the bacterium evolved fairly recently in a waste recycling center, since plastics were not invented until the 1940s.
John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom who co-led the work, said that the discovery was very exciting because it meant that "there's potential to optimise the enzyme even further". This suggests there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics'.
Plastic to a certain extent can be recycled.
The researchers worked with scientists at Diamond Light Source (DLS) in the United Kingdom, deploying a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.
Using a super-powerful X-ray, 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, they were able to make an ultra-high-resolution three-dimensional model of the enzyme. The result was a mutant protein with an enhanced ability to attack plastic. The team discovered that they had inadvertently made the enzyme better than its original form at digesting the plastic. Its findings were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
The government also confirmed yesterday that developing countries that have signed up to the alliance will also be eligible to bid for partnership support to improve waste management systems, as well as implement other initiatives to stop plastic waste from reaching oceans.
"We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these "wonder-materials" must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions".