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Scientists hope new enzyme will 'eat' plastic pollution

CNN logo CNN 4/17/2018 By Bard Wilkinson, CNN
PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Volunteers collect plastic rubbish and waste washed up on the beach besides the University of Plymouth's Marine Station as they take part in a awareness-raising event organised by the all-female eXXpedition crew who are preparing to sail around Britain to highlight plastic in the oceans on August 8, 2017 in Plymouth, England. In a pioneering sailing expedition, starting and finishing at the University of Plymouth's Marine Station, a diverse group of women will collect water samples to measure for micro-plastics and other toxic chemicals, as well as hold events in the various ports that they sail to including Cardiff, Belfast, Arran, Stornaway, Edinburgh, London and Plymouth. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images) © Matt Cardy/Getty Images PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Volunteers collect plastic rubbish and waste washed up on the beach besides the University of Plymouth's Marine Station as they take part in a awareness-raising event organised by the all-female eXXpedition crew who are preparing to sail around Britain to highlight plastic in the oceans on August 8, 2017 in Plymouth, England. In a pioneering sailing expedition, starting and finishing at the University of Plymouth's Marine Station, a diverse group of women will collect water samples to measure for micro-plastics and other toxic chemicals, as well as hold events in the various ports that they sail to including Cardiff, Belfast, Arran, Stornaway, Edinburgh, London and Plymouth. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Scientists have accidentally developed a plastic-eating enzyme that may be used to combat one of the world's worst pollution problems.

Researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme found in a waste recycling center a few years ago in Japan.

They say the enzyme, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, is able to "eat" polyethylene terephthalate, PET, which was patented as a plastic in the 1940s and is used in millions of tons of plastic bottles.

Their aim was to study its structure, but they accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics.

"We hoped to determine its structure to aid in protein engineering, but we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics," said NREL's lead researcher Gregg Beckham.

CLIFFE, KENT - JANUARY 02: Plastics and other detritus line the shore of the Thames Estuary on January 2, 2018 in Cliffe, Kent. Tons of plastic and other waste lines areas along the Thames Estuary shoreline, an important feeding ground for wading birds and other marine wildlife. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at current rates of pollution, there will likely be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. In December 2017 Britain joined the other 193 UN countries and signed up to a resolution to help eliminate marine litter and microplastics in the sea. It is estimated that about eight million metric tons of plastic find their way into the world's oceans every year. Once in the Ocean plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade, all the while breaking down into smaller and smaller 'microplastics,' which can be consumed by marine animals, and find their way into the human food chain. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images CLIFFE, KENT - JANUARY 02: Plastics and other detritus line the shore of the Thames Estuary on January 2, 2018 in Cliffe, Kent. Tons of plastic and other waste lines areas along the Thames Estuary shoreline, an important feeding ground for wading birds and other marine wildlife. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at current rates of pollution, there will likely be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. In December 2017 Britain joined the other 193 UN countries and signed up to a resolution to help eliminate marine litter and microplastics in the sea. It is estimated that about eight million metric tons of plastic find their way into the world's oceans every year. Once in the Ocean plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade, all the while breaking down into smaller and smaller 'microplastics,' which can be consumed by marine animals, and find their way into the human food chain. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The discovery could result in a recycling solution for millions of tons of plastic bottles made of PET, which currently persists for hundreds of years in the environment, the University of Portsmouth said on its website.

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

The enzyme can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

PEF plastics, although bio-based, are not biodegradable, and would still end up as waste in landfills and in the seas, the NREL said in a report on its website.

"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," said McGeehan.

The researchers, whose finding was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time, the University of Portsmouth added.

The NREL underscored the urgency of the work, pointing out that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste, including PET bottles, enter the oceans each year, creating huge man-made islands of garbage.

"Experts estimate that by 2050, there will be as much waste plastic in the ocean by mass as there are fish," it said.

According to a three-year study published in Scientific Reports last month, a huge, swirling pile of trash in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is growing faster than expected and is now three times the size of France, more than double the size of Texas.

"Few could have predicted that in the space of 50 years, single-use plastics such as drink bottles would be found washed up on beaches across the globe," said McGeehan.

"We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem," he added. "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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