Scientists accidentally engineer a plastic-eating enzyme

A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced

A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced

AN ENZYME that gobbles up plastic could be the answer to the world's recycling headache, say British scientists.

Japanese researchers believe the bacterium evolved fairly recently in a waste recycling centre, since plastics were not invented until the 1940s.

The scientists are now working on improving the enzyme to allow it to be "used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time".

"Through this ambitious alliance we will build on the UK's world-leading microbeads ban and 5p plastic bag charge to harness the full power of the Commonwealth in pushing for global change and safeguarding our marine environment for future generations". "There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable".

"Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world", said Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth.

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Working with USA colleagues, the Portsmouth scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire. The Portsmouth University team, and their collaborators, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, have since filed for a patent. "But the scientific community who ultimately created these "wonder-materials" must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions".

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", he said.

"I think [the new research] is very exciting work, showing there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem", said Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and not part of the research team.

"We've made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already", Professor McGeehan told Reuters.

Using the PETase blueprint provided by the Diamond Light Sources, the scientists re-engineered an active region of the molecule.

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That leaves £16.4m which will be spent on improving waste management at a national and city level to stop plastics entering the water.

"Devoting UK global development money to help poor communities clean up and better manage their waste isn't just good for nature, it's good for people too". But instead of the mutated PETase proving more ineffective at degrading PET, the team found the opposite, that it actually performed better.

The paper's lead author is postgraduate student, jointly funded by the University of Portsmouth and NREL, Harry Austin.

Although it is said to be recyclable, discarded PET can last for centuries before it degrades.

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