Fortuitously Produced Enzyme Eats Plastic Helping Combat Plastic Pollution

Chris Packham has called on the public to take the matter of plastic pollution into their own hands

"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", says McGeehan.

The creation of the enzyme occurred by chance when the team, led by Professor John Makhijani from the University of Portsmouth, forged bacterium, discovered in a landfill in Japan.

Bottles made from PET are used to package 70% of soft drinks, fruit juices and mineral waters, according to the British Plastics Federation. But I believe there is a public driver here: "perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these".

NREL and the University of Portsmouth collaborated closely with a multidisciplinary research team at the Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom, a large 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.

It could also attack another form of plastic, polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

"It's great and a real finding", McGeehan said.

"These enzymes are not abundantly present in nature, so you would need to produce the enzyme first, then add it to the PET plastic to degrade it", Wim Soetaert, head of the Industrial Biotechnology Centre at the University of Ghent, pointed out.

Researchers in the USA and Britain have accidentally engineered an enzyme which eats plastic and may eventually help solve the growing problem of plastic pollution, a study said Monday.

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PET was patented as a plastic in the 1940s, so the team set out to determine how the enzyme evolved and if it might be possible to improve it.

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

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

PET, the strong plastic commonly used in bottles, takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment.

Other types of plastic could be broken down by bacteria currently evolving in the environment, McGeehan said: "People are now searching vigorously for those".

McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work said, "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".

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, an expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University.

National Geographic will commit $10 million (£7m) and bring its scientific expertise, grants and media to support the activities of Sky Ocean Ventures, which seeks out investment opportunities in businesses that can help solve the ocean plastic crisis. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".

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