National Geographic and Sky team up to rid oceans of plastic

Darnell Taylor
April 17, 2018

SCIENTISTS at the city's university have inadvertently 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.

Penny Mordaunt, International Development Secretary, commented: "The scourge of plastics is a global environmental challenge, and one that overwhelmingly impacts the livelihoods and health of the world's poorest people". Although it is said to be recyclable, discarded PET can last for centuries before it degrades.

The nature-based network will bring together its global network of scientists and academics to support the fund's vision and provide targeted funding to improve recycling and waste management so the volume of plastic pollution in the oceans can be measurably reduced.

Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at the United States Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) solved the crystal structure of PETase, a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET.

The scientists generated 3-D imagery to understand how the enzyme works.

The goal was to determine its structure, but they ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics.

The discovery of a bacteria in a Japanese recycling centre that evolved the ability to feed on plastic initiate the research.

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The team set out to determine how the enzyme evolved and if it might be possible to improve it.

The project encourages innovators who are developing plastic packaging alternatives, new tech for the home that will assist recycling and those developing alternative fibres for clothing to share their ideas and seek support.

Sky and National Geographic have joined forces to stop plastic litter ending up in the world's oceans.

The researchers are now working with the tools of protein engineering and evolution to improve the enzyme in order to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

Working with U.S. colleagues, the Portsmouth scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire.

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

WWF chief executive Tanya Steele said: "This alliance, and the leadership the UK Government is showing through the Commonwealth, demonstrates that we're committed to being part of a global solution".

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