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Pollution solution? Protein eats plastic

AN ENZYME that gobbles up plastic could be the answer to the world’s recycling headache, say British scientists.

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

Tests showed the lab-made mutant had a supercharged ability to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the most popular forms of plastic which is used in 70 per cent of bottles for soft drinks, fruit juices and mineral waters. Although said to be highly recyclable, PET persists for hundreds of years.

Ever hopeful: Prof John McGeehan at work in his laboratory. An engineered enzyme that eats plastic could usher in a recycling revolution PICS: PA

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. Using intense X-rays at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire, the team inadvertently created a powerful new version of the protein.

Lead scientist prof John McGeehan, from Portsmouth university, said: ‘Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research, and our discovery is no exception. This suggests there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics.’