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Engineering a plastic-eating enzyme

The UK government is committed to a clean growth strategy and to eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Reducing the harmful pollution caused by plastic waste will drive research and innovation towards greater resource efficiency and a more circular economy – thereby delivering productivity, growth and environmental benefits across the UK.

UKRI supported scientists have engineered an enzyme which can digest some of our most commonly polluting plastics, providing a potential solution to one of the world’s biggest environmental problems. The discovery could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles, made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which currently persists for hundreds of years in the environment.

Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL solved the crystal structure of PETase - a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET - and used this 3D information to understand how it works. During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is even better at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

The University of Portsmouth and NREL collaborated with scientists at the Diamond Light Source to create an ultra-high resolution 3D model of the enzyme with the synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.