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In the search for scientific solutions to the plastic pollution crisis, momentum like this is vital.

Scientists from Portsmouth University and the Diamond Light Source are part of an global team that has engineered an enzyme with the potential to digest certain plastics.

"But they ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics", said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed United States journal.

These mutant enzymes with a taste for waste could lead to the full recycling of single-use bottles.

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.

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It is reported that the mutant enzyme starts to break down the plastic within a few days. Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is much more room to further improve these enzymes, moving scientists closer to solving the problem of an ever-growing amount of discarded plastics that take centuries to biodegrade.

"[PET] has only been around in vast quantities over the last 50 years, so it's actually not a very long timescale for a bacteria to have evolved to eat something so man-made", commented Prof John McGeehan, who was involved in the current study.

The researchers´ goal was to understand how one of its enzymes - called PETase - worked, by figuring out its structure.

The findings of the team were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Douglas Kell, a professor of bio-analytical science at Manchester University, said further rounds of work "should be expected to improve the enzyme yet further". The newly discovered enzyme promises to recycle plastic bottles back into new clear plastic bottles, which would require much less virgin plastic.

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Originally discovered in Japan, the enzyme is produced by a bacterium which "eats" PET.

Working with USA colleagues, the Portsmouth scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire. And the problem with the recycled plastic is that it can only be turned into fiber that is used in other applications; think carpeting, fleece and tote bags.

Researchers have created a chemical that can break plastic down in a matter of hours - compared to the hundreds of years it takes for it to decompose in the Nature.

Though the rise of plastics since the 1960s has led to tons of trash floating around the world's oceans, the discovery brings hope that plastic bottles will soon stop their accumulation in our water.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

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"After just 96 hours you can see clearly via electron microscopy that the PETase is degrading PET", says NREL structural biologist Bryon Donohoe.


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