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Plastic-eating enzyme could help fight pollution, scientists say

Plastic-eating enzyme could help fight pollution, scientists say
From CBC - April 17, 2018

Scientists in Britain and the United States say they have engineered a plastic-eating enzyme that could in future help in the fight against pollution.

The enzyme is able to digest polyethylene terephthalate, or PETa form of plastic patented in the 1940s and now used in millions of tons of plastic bottles. PET plastics can persist for hundreds of years in the environment and currently pollute large areas of land and sea worldwide.

Researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan.

Finding that this enzyme was helping a bacteria to break down, or digest, PET plastic, the researchers decided to "tweak" its structure by adding some amino acids, said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work.

This led to a serendipitous change in the enzyme's actionsallowing its plastic-eating abilities to work faster.

"We have made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already," McGeehan told Reuters in an interview. "That's really exciting because that means that there's potential to optimise the enzyme even further."

The team, whose finding was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, is now working on improving the enzyme further to see if they can make it capable of breaking down PET plastics on an industrial scale.

"Strong potential"

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