Saturday, 17 April, 2021


These scientists from University of Portsmouth accidentally developed plastic-eating enzymes

Chris Packham has called on the public to take the matter of plastic pollution into their own hands Chris Packham has called on the public to take the matter of plastic pollution into their own hands
Conrad Doyle | 17 April, 2018, 16:34

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

This natural enzyme is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan to allow a bacterium degrade plastic as a food source.

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said University of Portsmouth professor John McGeehan, who conducted the research with Gregg Beckham of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, ) in a statement.

"It's great and a real finding", McGeehan said. The research team believes there is potential to accelerate this process even more with further modification. "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment". Marine life is choking on it. "It is incredibly resistant to degradation".

Polyesters, industrially produced from petroleum, are widely used in plastic bottles and clothing. Although it is said to be recyclable, discarded PET can last for centuries before it degrades.

So an industrial process that could make the stuff easier to recycle would be most welcome. Using intense X-rays at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire, the team inadvertently created a powerful new version of the protein.

The bugs used a natural enzyme called PETase to digest PET bottles and containers.

"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan. "It's incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimized".

The enzyme is a number of years away from being deployed on a widespread scale.

The modified enzyme, known as PETase, can start breaking down the same material in just a few days.

Scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory chose to focus on a naturally occurring bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago.

The fund will be divided in three parts: £25 million towards researching the science and economics of marine plastic pollution, £20 million to prevent plastic and other pollutants from industry in developing countries from reaching the ocean, and £16.4 million to improve waste management in the United Kingdom so that plastics don't enter the ocean through rivers.

While they didn't expect it, this adjustment ended up showing the enzyme could still be further optimised in terms of breaking down plastics. "Bacteria have been evolving for millions of years to eat that". 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. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".

Douglas Kell, a professor of bio-analytical science at Manchester University, said further rounds of work "should be expected to improve the enzyme yet further".

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