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Breaking the mould: plastic-eating enzyme discovered

23/04/2018
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Plastics are brilliantly versatile materials and they’re an inescapable part of modern life. But plastics are also extremely resilient and the material takes centuries to decompose. Plastic pollution is a real challenge for current and future generations. There are growing global efforts to reduce plastic consumption and to promote recycling. In a real breakthrough, scientists have now discovered an enzyme which is able to breakdown one of the most common forms of plastic.     
It is hoped that the new enzyme could trigger a recycling revolution.
Plastics are complex polymers - they are long, repeating chains of molecules that don’t dissolve in water. They are malleable, lightweight, and inexpensive to produce. These characteristics have promoted the mass use of plastics across the globe. Drinks bottles are one of the most common forms of plastic waste. In 2016, 480 billion plastic bottles were produced. These drinks bottles are often made from a long-lasting form of plastic called PET - polyethylene terephthalate. There now is a great deal of research into increasing the rate of decomposition for this type of plastic.  

There have recently been real advances in this field. In 2016, an enzyme was discovered which can reduce the decomposition time for PET from hundreds of years down to mere weeks.  The bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis produces an enzyme, named PETase, which is capable of breaking down PET with great efficiency. The enzyme is naturally occurring and was first discovered at a bottle recycling plant in the Japanese port city of Sakai. PET was first manufactured in the 1940s and it’s striking that this bacterium has adapted so quickly. The enzyme is being studied intently, and it is hoped that this discovery will start a recycling revolution. 
Scientists across the globe are working to reduce plastic pollution, with this promising discovery potentially revolutionising the situation.
Pollution solution?

Earlier this week, an international team, co-led by the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, announced that they have made real progress.  By subjecting the enzyme to an intense beam of x-rays, they developed a thorough understanding its structure. These tests also inadvertently improved the enzyme’s ability to breakdown PET by 20%. 
 
Professor John McGeehan, who led the study, said: “Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics”. It is hoped that in the years ahead, a form of this enzyme could be used to breakdown plastics on a massive scale. 

Attitudes towards plastic waste are changing. The BBC’s excellent documentary series, Blue Planet II, has recently galvanised public support for a more sustainable approach to plastic use. Researchers from across the globe are working to improve the situation, and this promising discovery could be a real breakthrough. 

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Breaking the mould: plastic-eating enzyme discovered - Time to read 3 min
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