New £60m government fund to tackle global plastic pollution

New £60m government fund to tackle global plastic pollution

Scientists have engineered an enzyme which can digest some of the most commonly polluting plastics, providing a potential solution to one of the world's biggest environmental problems.

Bottles made from PET are used to package 70 per cent of soft drinks, fruit juices and water sold in shops, restaurants and supermarkets.

Penny Mordaunt, International Development Secretary, commented: "The scourge of plastics is a global environmental challenge, and one that overwhelmingly impacts the livelihoods and health of the world's poorest people". The trait indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.

For example, the Department for International Development will fund pilot programmes in up to three Commonwealth developing countries to tackle waste from cities that often ends up in waterways.

The scientists generated 3-D imagery to understand how the enzyme works.

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

Scientists in Britain and the U.S. have engineered a plastic-eating enzyme that could in future help in the fight against pollution.

Finding the enzyme was helping a bacteria to break down, or digest, PET plastic, the researchers chose to "tweak" its structure by adding amino acids, said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work. The goal was to determine its structure, but ended up going a step further and the team accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET. Details of the breakthrough are published in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The technology exists and it's well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET and potentially other substrates like PEF, PLA, and PBS, back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled", said McGeehan.

Working with United States colleagues, the Portsmouth scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire.

Professor McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences said: 'Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world.

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