Lab Breakthrough May Help Fight on Plastic Waste

'Pac-Men' enzymes engineered to feast on plastic
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 29, 2020 12:00 PM CDT
'Pac-Men' Enzymes May Help Solve a Major Problem
Stock image.   (Getty/Inside Creative House)

Plastic waste is a large and ever-growing problem around the world. Now, researchers say they're closing in on a potentially game-changing solution that could be commercially available in a year or two, reports the Guardian. Scientists have engineered a "super-enzyme" that breaks down plastic six times faster than a previous iteration. The breakthrough came when they combined a previously discovered enzyme (PETase) with a second one (MHETase), explains a release from the UK's University of Portsmouth. "Our first experiments showed that they did indeed work better together, so we decided to try to physically link them, like two Pac-Men joined by a piece of string," says researcher John McGeehan. The result sped up the process faster than expected, per the new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got a dramatic increase in activity," McGeehan says, per the Guardian. The super-enzyme degrades polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, the major component of single-use bottles and such, per CNN. The speed at which it works remains too slow to be commercially viable, but the researchers think that has the potential to change quickly, especially if they partner with firms such as Carbios of France, which discovered a plastic-eating enzyme of its own, though one that needs high temperatures. "If we can make better, faster enzymes by linking them together and provide them to companies like Carbios, and work in partnership, we could start doing this within the next year or two," says McGeehan, per the Guardian. Another enzyme combo with PETase might improve the recycling of clothes made of fabrics such as polyester. (More plastic stories.)

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