Scientists accidentally develop plastic digesting enzyme

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
The development could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of PET. Photo credit: David Jones

Scientists have accidentally developed an enzyme which can digest some of the most commonly polluting plastics.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) were looking at crystal PETase, a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET, when they inadvertently engineered an enzyme even better at degrading the plastic than nature.

The development could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate).

Researchers are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to breakdown plastics in a fraction of the time.

Professor McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: “Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception.

“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.”

McGeehan emphasised the importance of a joined-up approach to fighting plastic pollution.

He added: “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.”


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