Can plastic-eating enzyme cut pollution?

A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced

But in a new twist, British and American scientists have announced that while studying this bacteria, they accidentally created a mutant enzyme that's even more efficient at breaking down plastic bottles. They ended up creating an enzyme that worked even faster than the natural one.

And since enzymes are non-toxic and biodegradable, the discovery could be a major breakthrough in sustainably recycling the millions of tons of plastic that are polluting the planet.

John McGeehan, University of Portsmouth professor, told The Guardian, "It is a modest improvement - 20 percent better - but that is not the point".

"What we really need are system changes to reduce the volume of throwaway plastic packaging and make sure plastic drinks bottles are collected and separated effectively", said Edge.

To begin experiments, the research team wanted to find out exactly how effective PETase was at digesting PET. NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe and postdoctoral researcher Nic Rorrer tested PETase by taking samples of PET from the soda bottles in Beckham's office and ran an experiment with PETase.

The modified enzyme, called PETase, can break down PET in just a few days-a stunning discovery that could help fight the world's escalating plastic crisis.

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"We've made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already", McGeehan told Reuters in an interview.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, are now working to further improve the enzyme so it can be used on an industrial scale. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not. By shining intense beams of X-rays on it, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, they were able to see individual atoms.

"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. But while manipulating the enzyme, the worldwide team inadvertently improved its ability to devour plastic.

Other types of plastic could be broken down by bacteria currently evolving in the environment, McGeehan said: "People are now searching vigorously for those".

The U.S. Department of Energy partnered with the University of Portsmouth on the discovery. "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".

Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, agreed the enzyme could be useful but added: "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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