Plastic-eating enzymes offer new hope for pollution solution

A study conducted by scientists at Brunel University has identified a possible approach to tackling one of the world’s greatest environmental challenges. 

sprite plastic bottle on table

Two new enzymes which can break down one of the most common forms of single-use plastics have been identified. It is now hoped they could be used to dissolve plastic bottles faster than all current recycling methods. 

The process also results in ‘new’ raw materials being made available to make more bottles, once the original has been broken down. The findings represent just the latest in a string of biological developments within the waste and recycling space, with a number of natural solutions to plastic pollution having been identified in recent years.

However, in most cases the process involved is too slow to be implemented at scale, which is where the Brunel study excels. The university is currently one of the pioneering institutions in the field of synthetic biology, which applies ideas and principles from engineering to design new biological pathways, organisms and devices, or modify those found in nature.

In the case of plastic-eating enzymes, experts worked on boosting the ability of these bio-catalysts to grow in communities called biofilms. Genetic engineering was used to attach the plastic degrading bacteria to waste bags and form biofilms. This results in significantly higher concentrations of enzymes than would otherwise have been possible. 

‘These new findings are really exciting,’ said Dr Ronan McCarthy. ‘Not only have we identified two new PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) degrading enzymes, but we found a way to improve their degradation abilities by modifying the bacteria as whole, rather than modifying each enzyme individually.

‘This suggests that modulating biofilm formation may be an effective strategy to increase the efficiency of plastic degrading bacteria,’ McCarthy continued. ‘Using biofilm to enhance plastic degrading enzyme activity could potentially be applied to all plastic degrading enzymes currently in development.’

The team will now test the two enzymes in a bioreactor to ascertain if this will improve the degradation rate of the plastic in a more industrial setting, which could afford even great control over how biofilms are created and develop.

More on plastic pollution:

Public believes plastic will soon be history as single-use ban begins

Polyester: The stealth plastic we can no longer depend on

Organisations invited to commit used workwear for groundbreaking polyester recycling

Image: Nick Fewings


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