These scientists from University of Portsmouth accidentally developed plastic-eating enzymes

Gladys Abbott
April 17, 2018

The team had been looking originally at another enzyme called PETease which had evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan.

While analysing the molecular structure of an existing enzyme, scientists accidentally create a powerful new version.

Scientists from Portsmouth University and the Diamond Light Source are part of an worldwide team that has engineered an enzyme with the potential to digest certain plastics.

The researchers also believe that with further tinkering, the enzyme could be improved again to speed up the process further allowing for its use on an industrial scale.

"What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic", added McGeehan.

PET persists for hundreds of years in the environment before it degrades and the discovery may mean that significantly more plastic waste could be recycled. "Some of those images are horrific", said McGeehan.

United Kingdom consumers use around 13 billion plastic drinks bottles a year but more than three billion are not recycled. "After just 96 hours you can see clearly via electron microscopy that the PETase is degrading PET", said Donohoe.

PET is relatively easy to recycle, but over half of global PET waste is not collected for recycling, according to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and only 7 percent of bottles are recycled into new bottles (most go into lower-value products).

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The findings of the team were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Scientists from the University of South Florida and the University of Campinas in Brazil did computer modeling which showed PETase looked similar to another enzyme, cutinase, found in fungus and bacteria.

The team set out to determine how the enzyme evolved and if it might be possible to improve it.

"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan.

"We see an industrial process where the waste is collected and - rather than incinerate it or throw it in landfill as it often is at the moment- the enzyme is thrown in to a huge Value-Added Tax. It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years and make a super-fast enzyme".

The research team also included scientists from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The breakthrough is the latest in a series of tantalizing research results hinting that certain enzymes and microbes that use them might pave a way to degrade mountains of plastics scrap. "Bacteria have been evolving for millions of years to eat that". 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. These enzymes could be helpful in solving growing problems from plastic pollution.

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", he said.

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