Saturday 4 July, 2020

Plastic-eating enzyme 'could help fight pollution'

(Image: Plastic bottles in stock image via Pixnio)

(Image: Plastic bottles in stock image via Pixnio)

Scientists say they have engineered a plastic-eating enzyme that could be a step towards tackling global pollution.

The enzyme can digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a kind of strong plastic used in plastic bottles around the world.

The researchers, from the UK and the US, made the discovery as they examined a naturally-occurring enzyme that evolved in a plastic disposal centre in Japan. The scientists knew this enzyme, discovered in 2016, was helping a bacteria to break down PET, so they used an intense beam of x-rays to examine its structure.

They found it was similar to an enzyme used by bacteria to break down cutin, a natural compound that serves as a protective coating on plants. When the team tweaked the enzyme to study the link, they unexpectedly improved its ability to eat PET.

John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth in the UK who co-led the work, said that the discovery was very exciting because it meant that “there’s potential to optimise the enzyme even further”.

The team is now working to see if it can be improved to work faster and, in the long term, become a tool used to recycle PET plastic on an industrial scale by reducing it back to its building blocks so it can be reused.

At the moment PET takes hundreds of years to break down in the natural environment and is a major contributor to land and sea pollution.

The research team also included scientists from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Its findings were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

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