Scientists discover plastic-eating enzyme

Scientists have engineered an enzyme that can digest some of our most commonly polluting plastics. The discovery provides a potential solution to one of the world’s biggest environmental problems.

The plastic-eating enzyme could lead to a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles that take centuries to degrade.

With around 1 million plastic bottles sold every minute worldwide, the breakthrough provides a critically important solution to fully recycle plastic bottles for the first time.

The discovery was made by scientists from the University of Portsmouth while examining the structure of a natural enzyme known as PETase thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan.

During their examinations of PETase’s 3D atomic structure using one of the world’s most advanced X-ray beamlines, the researchers accidentally engineered an enzyme that proved even better at breaking down PET plastics, explained a statement.

The PETase mutant is able to start breaking down plastic in just a few days, but the researchers are working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

Professor John McGeehan, who led the research, commented: “The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes currently being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels.

“The technology exists and it is 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.”

He added that the unanticipated discovery suggests there is room to further improve these enzymes, “moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics”.

Photo credit: Steven Depolo/ CC BY 2.0

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