Scientists create super-enzyme that digests plastic at top speed - Planet Ark Environmental Foundation

Scientists create super-enzyme that digests plastic at top speed

By Lucy Jones  October 7th, 2020

Scientists have created a new super-enzyme that might offer a solution to our plastic pollution problem.

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Researchers from the UK's University of Portsmouth have created a new plastic-eating enzyme that can consume plastic bottles within a matter of days.

The super-enzyme was created by linking two enzymes that were found in a bacteria that naturally evolved to eat plastic. The plastic-eating bug was originally discovered in 2016 by a team of Japanese researchers.

"The Japanese research team sifted through hundreds of samples of PET pollution before finding a colony of organisms using the plastic as a food source," a Guardian article from 2016 reads.

"Further tests found the bacteria almost completely degraded low-quality plastic within six weeks."

Using two enzymes found in this bacteria, scientists have engineered a new-and-improved enzyme that can gobble up polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic products within days.

“When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got a dramatic increase in activity,“ University of Portsmouth Professor John McGeehan explained.

“This is a trajectory towards trying to make faster enzymes that are more industrially relevant. But it’s also one of those stories about learning from nature, and then bringing it into the lab.”

Now six-times faster than before, this new plastic-eating enzyme could be used for commercial recycling purposes within the next two years.

“If we can make better, faster enzymes by linking them together and provide them to companies like Carbios, and work in partnership, we could start doing this within the next year or two," McGeehan said.

The research team is working on speeding up this process even more by optimising the bacteria in ways that would not be possible in nature.

"There’s huge potential,” McGeehan explained. “We’ve got several hundred in the lab that we’re currently sticking together.”

They are also experimenting with enzymes that break down natural fibres that could be combined with the plastic-eating enzyme to recycle mixed materials such as poly-blend textiles.

While it is important avoid single-use plastic products as much as possible, this discovery provides a solution for the plastics that are already in circulation. The project is a reminder of the incredible resilience of nature and the importance of working with natural systems to develop solutions to our biggest environmental challenges.

Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes. 

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Lucy Jones

Lucy started her career working as a writer and editor in print and digital publishing. She went on to create content for Australia's leading sustainable fashion platform while completing her Master of Cultural Studies. Lucy spends her downtime at the beach, crocheting and hanging out with her cat Larry. She believes words can change the world and is stoked to help Planet Ark spread the message of positive environmental change.

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