Story at a glance

  • Scientists at the University of Portsmouth merged two enzymes to create a more effective protein to decompose plastic waste.
  • This could help reduce and recycle the amount of plastic on Earth.

A team of scientists at the University of Portsmouth in England have developed a new enzyme with the ability to break down plastics up to six times faster than standard enzymes, according to CNN.

Enzymes, proteins that are key components in chemical reactions within the human body, act as catalysts that speed up the breakdown of substances.

In reducing the amount of non-biodegradable plastic in the Earth, enzymes have been used to help combat pollution by breaking down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) chain molecules, the most common thermoplastic that makes up everyday items like single-use bottles, clothing and carpets. 


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The researchers, who had earlier engineered an enzyme found within bacteria of plastic bottles, combined it with a second enzyme to accelerate the breakdown of plastics.

The first altered enzyme was called PETase, which will now be connected with MHETase to create the University’s new enzyme protein. Between these two enzymes connecting, PET chains in plastic were found to break down twice as fast as PETase alone.

John McGeehan, the lead co-author and director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, told reporters his team used a tool called the Diamond Light Source to map the molecular structure of MHETase. The Diamond Light Source uses X-rays approximately 10 billion times brighter than the sun to let people see the individual atoms.

From there, scientists reportedly connected MHETase and PETase by stitching them together in a single chain. 

This is a technique commonly used in biofuels to create enzyme chains that can help deconstruct cellulases. McGeehan told reporters that the team at the University of Portsmouth is the first to use enzymes to break down plastic.

In regards to the enzyme’s success, McGeehan is reportedly surprised at how efficient it is.

“We were actually quite surprised it worked so well," he told reporters.

Usually, the PET chains found in plastics take centuries to decompose. The new enzyme chain could break down plastic products within days.  

This innovation has large and positive implications for plastic pollution on Earth. 

National Geographic notes that roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste end up in oceans annually from coastal nations. Plastic consumption by animals also interferes with species preservation and has negatively affected up to 700 endangered species.  

The combination of PETase and MHETase stand to reduce the amount of plastics in the environment, potentially helping the world pivot away from using harmful fossil fuels to create new plastic by experimenting with recycling existing PET into new products.

"We're looking at huge energy savings," McGeehan said.

The study was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 


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Published on Sep 29, 2020