Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Business | By Kate Woods

Pollution solution? Protein eats plastic

Pollution solution? Protein eats plastic

An engineered enzyme that eats plastic could usher in a recycling revolution, scientists hope.

The global team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles.

"We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these "wonder materials" must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions".

The worldwide team, led by Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, UK, tested the evolutionary process of the enzyme, inadvertently discovering that they had improved the capabilities of the enzyme in breaking down PET bottles.

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Researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan. The trait indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.

This enzyme is said to be so effective that it only needs a few days to start breaking down plastic, much faster than natural processes that could take centuries.

Using a super-powerful X-ray, 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, they were able to make an ultra-high-resolution three-dimensional model of the enzyme.

Professor Adisa Azapagic of the University of Manchester, UK, likewise agreed that the enzyme could prove useful, but stated concern that it could lead to other forms of pollution: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions".

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Although said to be highly recyclable, PET persists for hundreds of years. But, more significantly, it can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF) - a bio-based substitute for PET plastics being hailed as a replacement for glass bottles. "Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics".

The alliance will work with NGOs and business to share expertise, including the World Economic Forum, Fauna and Flora International, Coca-Cola and Sky, which has been campaigning around the plastics issue through its Sky Ocean Rescue project.

That leaves £16.4m which will be spent on improving waste management at a national and city level to stop plastics entering the water.

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