Plastic-eating enzyme can help to fight pollution: scientists

Theresa May at a conference

Theresa May at a conference

With the hope of developing a solution to the world's chronic plastic pollution problem, British and American researchers chose to study the enzyme that the bacteria were using to digest this ubiquitous substance-and now they've made a stunning discovery.

This means that plastic can be quickly broken down into its constituent parts and put back together to make new bottles and other products - making recycling considerably more efficient than it is at the moment.

"The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels - the technology exists and it's 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", says McGeehan.

The research was led by teams at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom and the USA department of energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The accidental discovery of the power of a mutant enzyme found in a Japanese dump could revolutionise how we recycle plastic. 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's Bryon Donohoe and Nic Rorrer punch out coupon samples from a PET bottle to test how effectively the PETase enzyme digests plastic. "It's great and a real finding", McGeehan added.

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The new chemical is based on the discovery in 2016 of a new species bacteria species that has evolved to feed exclusively on plastic.

Fortuitously produced enzyme eats plastic, which ultimately may help reduce critically intense plastic pollution. But when the team manipulated the enzyme to explore this connection, they accidentally improved its ability to eat PET. Coca-Cola, for example, which produces more than 100 billion plastic bottles a year, according to Greenpeace, has promised to increase the recycled content of its bottles 50 percent by 2020.

The team behind the research at Portsmouth University includes PhD students and even undergraduates, and when I visited their lab their excitement was infectious. But bacteria are far easier to harness for industrial uses. A type of bacteria evolved to live off plastic in the last few decades. 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.

Increasing the volume of plastic that is recycled could significantly cut the amount that finds its way into the sea, which now stands at about a truck load every single minute worldwide.

The work reported in PNAS was enabled by funding from NREL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program, the University of Portsmouth, and the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".

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