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Scientists hope new enzyme will 'eat' plastic pollution

18 April 2018, 12:38 | Melanie Burgess

New plastic-eating protein could usher in recycling revolution

Scientists Discover Enzyme That Eats The Worst Polluting Plastics

But when the team manipulated the enzyme to explore this connection, they accidentally improved its ability to eat PET.

The U.S. and United Kingdom results were published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal and then announced in a Portsmouth University news release.

According to the scientists, the new enzyme called ideonellasakaiensis 201-F6 could become a solution to the problem of plastic pollution worldwide.

"Luck is often an important part of basic scientific research, and our discovery is no exception", said John McGeehan, a professor at the School of Biological Sciences in Portsmouth, "Although the breakthrough is modest, this unexpected discovery suggests that there is room for further improvement of these enzymes, to bring us even closer to a recycling solution for this ever-growing body of plastic that no one seems to consider as important", he added. The new enzyme indicates a way to recycle clear plastic bottles back into clear plastic bottles, which could slash the need to produce new plastic.

NREL estimates that about eight million metric tons of plastic waste, including PET bottles, enter the oceans each year, creating huge man-made islands of garbage.

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The mutant enzyme only takes days to begin breaking down plastics, a lot faster than the centuries it takes plastics to decay in the ocean. "We'd actually have proper recycling", McGeehan told BBC News. They and Gregg Beckham are among the global team of researchers who are working to further improve the enzyme to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

The researchers, whose finding was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time, the University of Portsmouth added. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle".

McGeehan's team reportedly tweaked the PETase to better understand its structure. "It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years and make a super-fast enzyme".

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) stumbled upon a biological catalyst that's better at degrading polyethylene terephthalate (PET) than the one evolved in nature. Because it's virtually invincible against microbes, however, the plastic never degrades, making it a pollutant scourge on the environment. He said, "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". These differences indicated that PETase must have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".

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