Plastic-eating enzyme can help to fight pollution: scientists

Image underwater showing plastic wrappers

GETTY STEVE DE NEEFSea creatures are dying due to carrier bags being wrapped around their internal organs

AN ENZYME that gobbles up plastic could be the answer to the world's recycling headache, say British scientists.

Another is the recently discovered enzyme that consumes PET plastics called PETase, which scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) used as a starting point for their groundbreaking research. Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said: "I think [the new research] is very exciting work, showing there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem".

The scientists are now working on improving the enzyme to allow it to be "used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time".

Ahead of the meeting, Mrs May said: "As one of the most significant environmental challenges facing the world today, it is vital that we tackle this issue so that future generations can enjoy a natural environment that is healthier than we now find it". "There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable".

"Few could have predicted that in the space of 50 years, single-use plastics such as drink bottles would be found washed up on beaches across the globe", said McGeehan.

"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock", said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research.

The researchers worked with scientists at Diamond Light Source (DLS) in the United Kingdom, deploying a 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.

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"I am delighted to be part of an worldwide team that is tackling one of the biggest problems facing our planet". "What actually happened was that we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock", said John McGeehan.

Britain, which is co-chairing the event with Vanuatu, will ask Commonwealth nations to follow the UK's lead in banning microbeads and slashing the number of single use plastic bags.

The federation added: "The BPF welcomes the opportunity to have a discussion about the right interventions to reduce plastic waste and as an industry are committed to adding our expertise to help work with other Commonwealth countries to reach effective solutions".

The team initially discovered that PETase has some unusual features including a more open active site, able to accommodate man-made rather than natural polymers.

PET persists for hundreds of years in the environment before it degrades and the discovery may mean that significantly more plastic waste could be recycled.

The enzyme can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

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