These scientists from University of Portsmouth accidentally developed plastic-eating enzymes

These scientists from University of Portsmouth accidentally developed plastic-eating enzymes

It was also confirmed that from later in 2018, the Department for International Development will match public donations to tackle the issue of plastic waste in the world's oceans and rivers, "in recognition of the passionate response of the United Kingdom public to the issue".

Researchers created the plastic-digesting protein accidentally while investigating its natural counterpart.

The researchers were initially inspired by the discovery of a bacterium in 2016 in Japan that had naturally evolved to eat plastic found at waste dumps.

PET, patented as a plastic in the 1940s, has not existed in nature for long, so the team set out to determine how an enzyme called PETase evolved and if it might be possible to improve it by determining its structure.

So they mutated the PETase active site to make it more like cutinase, and unexpectedly found that this mutant enzyme was even better than the natural PETase at breaking down PET.

"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 at Portsmouth University. "Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests 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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Working with U.S. colleagues, the Portsmouth scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire. Through this method they wound up with a ultra-high resolution 3D model of PETase.

"I think [the new research] is very exciting work, showing there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem", said Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and not part of the research team.

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

The £61.4-million funding package will go towards practical and research-based projects, with up to five developing countries able to receive partnership support from the Department for International Development (DFID) to help them improve their waste management systems.

The cash will be used for grants, innovation challenges and events to raise the profile of the plastic problem and fund the development of alternative materials and new, zero-waste manufacturing processes. The trait indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.

The announcement came as the Prime Minister also confirmed that New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Ghana have joined the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (CCOA) - an agreement between member states to join forces in the fight against plastic pollution.

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