Plastic eating enzyme engineered in new research

Date posted: 17 April 2018

Scientists have engineered an enzyme; PETase, that is capable of digesting some of the most common plastics that are polluting our oceans. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is the plastic used to create common plastics such as disposable water bottles and film. The Marine Conservation Society’s annual Beachwatch report shows that plastic water bottles and other plastic products make up the majority of debris found on UK beaches, and have been found in the ocean’s deepest trenches at depths of 10,900 metres.

© Professor John McGeehan

Although procedures that make the recycling process easier are to be welcomed, much more focus needs to be placed on reduction in production and consumption and increased collection of uncontaminated materials.

Sue Kinsey,
Senior Pollution Policy Officer
Marine Conservation Society
Plastic eating enzyme

Reports today that this is a breakthrough in the fight against plastic are encouraging, but a long way from becoming reality, and we believe that it is hugely important that we reduce the amount of plastic in use, and improve rates of re-use and recycling before assuming that we can turn to a technological solution to the plastic waste problem.

Research on the enzyme was led by the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The enzyme is thought to have evolved in the soil of a Japanese recycling facility. As evolution usually happens extremely slowly, researchers were surprised to see how quickly the enzyme adapted to feeding on man-made plastics. In an attempt to further study the enzyme’s structure, it was accidentally engineered and the result was an enzyme that is better adapted to digesting plastic than the enzyme originally discovered in the wild.

Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth said; “Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception.”

The researchers behind the discovery hope that this new PETase enzyme will allow for more efficient processing in plastic recycling systems. The enzyme will break down PET plastics into their base materials, allowing them to be reused with the quality and strength of new materials. They aim to continue to improve upon the enzyme’s ability to break down plastics. Ultimately feeding into the development of a sustainable circular economy.

Sue Kinsey, Senior Pollution Policy Officer at MCS said: “This is certainly an interesting development, however, we need to know much more about how this would work in reality. Although procedures that make the recycling process easier are to be welcomed, much more focus needs to be placed on reduction in production and consumption and increased collection of uncontaminated materials.”

Modern technologies yield phenomenal potential for increasing efficiency in dealing with plastic pollution, yet as acknowledged by Harry Austin, lead author on the research paper: “this research is just the beginning and there is much more to be done in this area. I am delighted to be part of an international team that is tackling one of the biggest problems facing our planet.”

Many plastic digesting organisms have been discovered in recent years including fungus, worms and larvae, yet the environmental threat of introducing these organisms in tackling plastic pollution is of high concern.

Everyone plays their part in reducing plastic waste by sticking to the 5 R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle.

Do you want to help stop the plastic tide? We are currently calling on UK governments to put a charge on single-use plastic throwaway items and demanding that big fast food chains stop giving out millions of plastic cups, stirrers, straws and cutlery but instead replace them with reusable or fully compostable alternatives.

Actions you can take

  1. Help us stop the plastic tide
  2. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2019
  3. Help stop the plastic tide

Did you know?…

Every day millions of microplastics enter the sea from personal care products such as scrubs and toothpastes

It’s estimated that one rubbish truck load of plastic litter enters the ocean every minute

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be 6 times the size of the UK