Scientists 'accidentally' create plastic-eating enzyme

Theresa May is expected to launch a multi-million-pound bid to help rid the oceans of plastic pollution

The announcement came as the Prime Minister also confirmed that New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Ghana have joined the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (CCOA) - an agreement between member states to join forces in the fight against plastic pollution.

From the funding announced by May, £25 million ($35.8 million) will be used to help researchers investigate the issue of marine plastic from a scientific, economic and social perspective.

This natural enzyme is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan to allow a bacterium degrade plastic as a food source.

"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 U.S. journal.

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", he said.

"What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic", said McGeehan.

A £61.4m war chest to fight the rising tide of plastic pollution in the world's oceans has been announced by the Government.

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One of the most common plastics is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can be recycled into items such as clothes and carpets that can then themselves be recycled. Little of this is recycled, which means we are polluting our environment with materials that take centuries to degrade, much of which washes out into the ocean where it breaks into tiny pieces that are almost impossible to track, let alone clean up.

The new chemical is based on the discovery in 2016 of a new species bacteria species that has evolved to feed exclusively on plastic.

This led to a serendipitous change in the enzyme's actions - allowing its plastic-eating abilities to work faster. Using this technology, the team created an ultra-high-resolution 3D model of the PETase enzyme in "exquisite detail".

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".

Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, agreed the enzyme could be useful but added: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions".

"Through this ambitious alliance we will build on the UK's world-leading microbeads ban and 5 pence (0.07 USA dollar) plastic bag charge to harness the full power of the Commonwealth in pushing for global change and safeguarding our marine environment for future generations".

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