Plastic-eating protein created in British lab could spark recycling revolution

17th April 2018 | Recycling

A plastic-eating protein grown in a British laboratory could revolutionise recycling and prevent thousands of tonnes of non-biodegradable waste clogging up landfill sites and the world’s oceans. The enzyme, created by accident during tests by researchers from Plymouth University, is the first known protein capable of digesting polyethylene, one of the most commonly used plastics for consumer goods.

The breakthrough was made inadvertently when tests were conducted on a naturally occurring bacteria found in a Japanese recycling centre, with the X-ray experiments causing it to mutate into a more powerful enzyme. Tests showed that the lab-made mutant had a supercharged ability to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the most popular forms of plastic employed by the food and drinks industry.

Plastic-Eating Protein

Bottles made from PET are used to package 70 per cent of soft drinks, fruit juices and mineral waters sold in shops and supermarkets, according to the British Plastics Federation.

Although it is said to be highly recyclable, discarded PET persists for hundreds of years in the environment before it degrades.

The new research sprang from the discovery of bacteria in a Japanese waste recycling centre that had evolved the ability to feed on plastic. The bugs used a natural enzyme called PETase to digest bottles and containers.

While probing the bacteria’s molecular structure, the British team inadvertently created a powerful new version of the protein. Lead scientist Professor John McGeehan, from the University of 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.”

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