Scientists 'accidentally' create plastic-eating enzyme

Image underwater showing plastic wrappers

Image underwater showing plastic wrappers

The tradition of chance meeting science continues after scientists "inadvertently" engineer an enzyme better at breaking down plastics than its natural counterpart.

The plastic pollution crisis is getting out of hand.

"The Diamond Light Source recently created one of the most advanced X-ray beamlines in the world and having access to this facility allowed us to see the 3D atomic structure of PETase in incredible detail", says Professor John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth. "It's great and a real finding". Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is much more room to further improve these enzymes, moving scientists closer to solving the problem of an ever-growing amount of discarded plastics that take centuries to biodegrade.

A stack of crushed colorful plastic bottles waits to be recycled.

. Marine life is choking on it.

"You are always up against the fact that oil is cheap, so virgin PET is cheap", said McGeehan.

PET is relatively easy to recycle, but over half of global PET waste is not collected for recycling, according to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and only 7 percent of bottles are recycled into new bottles (most go into lower-value products). 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. The structure was found to be very similar to that of the bacteria capable of breaking-down cutin, a natural polymer used as a protective coating by plants. "Some of those images are horrific", said McGeehan. "It's incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimized".

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"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", said McGeehan.

He said the enzyme needs to be made to act even faster to make the process commerically viable but is confident that can be done, potentially in as little as five years, now that they understand how the process works.

Now however, The Guardian is reporting that the discovery of an enzyme in a Japanese dump in 2016 has now reaped dividends enormously thanks to an accidental breakthrough made by a team of scientists from the University of Portsmouth, UK.

Despite recycling efforts, most plastic can persist for hundreds of years in the environment, so researchers are searching for better ways to eliminate it.

The scientific community response has generally been positive.

Researchers in the U.S. 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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