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Catalyst of plastic-eating substance accidently discovered

4th May 2018
Catalyst of plastic-eating substance accidently discovered

PETase R103G/S131A mutant enzyme (Photo: Keministi /CC)

According to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal scientists have accidentally created a  plastic “eating” substance that could help tackle global pollution.

The substance is based on an enzyme first discovered in bacteria living in a Japanese recycling centre that researchers suggested had evolved it in order to eat plastic.

University of Portsmouth biologist Professor John McGeehan and his colleagues accidentally created a super-powered version of the plastic-eating enzyme discovered in 2016.

The catalyst called PETase accelerated a degradation process that would normally take hundreds of years. Tweaking the enzyme allowed scientists to produce a substance capable of digesting plastic.

“Being able to see the inner workings of this biological catalyst provided us with the blueprints to engineer a faster and more efficient enzyme ” said McGeehan

Though simply breaking down larger pieces of plastic into smaller pieces is not in itself useful – and in fact creates microplastics of the typical current causing damage to marine environments – the scientists suggest their method could be employed to make plastic recycling far more effective.

Scientists have, however, cautioned there would be a long way to go before these enzymes are widely applied in the recycling industry.

“While there is still a way to go before you could recycle large amount of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable, this is certainly a step in a positive direction and very exciting science to boot,” said Dr Oliver Jones, an analytical chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne.

Awareness of plastic pollution has spiked in recent months, with communities across the UK implementing measures to cut down on plastic waste.

These local efforts have been accompanied by Government policies to help tackle this “scourge”, including the ban on microbeads and the introduction of a bottle deposit scheme.

However, McGeehan noted the role that science must also play in developing novel solutions to fight against the tide of plastic.

“Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world. 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.”  he said.

Harun Nasrullah

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