Scientists accidentally discover enzyme that could 'eat' plastic pollution

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Pollution has negative effects on our health, but scientists may be able to better combat the issue with a plastic-eating enzyme they discovered accidentally.

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Researchers from the University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently conducted a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to examine the natural molecules and chemicals found at a waste recycling center in Japan.

During their assessment, they discovered that the enzyme, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, can "eat" polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used to make plastic bottles.

While they intended to better understand the structure of it, they actually engineered an enzyme that breaks down PET products.

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"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," co-author John McGeehan said in a statement.

The scientists said PET can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. The chemicals can seep into the soil, affecting the groundwater and infecting drinking water.

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While the analysts called their discovery a “modest” improvement, they hope to continue their investigations to improve the enzyme with the help of protein tools. They said they believe their work will be used to industrially break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

“We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem,” McGeehan said, “but the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’ must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.”