Boffins at Harwell-based Diamond Light Source have helped engineer a potentially revolutionary method of recycling plastics.
Scientists have improved a naturally occurring enzyme which can digest some of our most commonly polluting plastics.
PET, the strong plastic commonly used in bottles, takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment.
The modified enzyme, known as PETase, can start breaking down the same material in just a few days.
This is expected to transform the recycling process, allowing plastics to be re-used more effectively.
Experts at Portsmouth University led the research and worked closely with Diamond Light Source and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Scientists at the Diamond Light Source employed a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.
From this, a high definition 3D model of the enzyme was created.
Professor John McGeehan, from Portsmouth University, said access to the facility “allowed us to see the 3D atomic structure of PETase in incredible detail”.
“Being able to see the inner workings of this biological catalyst provided us with the blueprints to engineer a faster and more efficient enzyme,” he added.
Researchers made the breakthrough when examining a natural enzyme thought to have evolved in a recycling centre in Japan.
Professor Andrew Harrison, chief executive of the Diamond Light Source, said: “The detail that the team were able to draw out from the results achieved at Diamond will be invaluable in looking to tailor the enzyme for use in large-scale industrial recycling processes.”
He added: “The impact of such an innovative solution to plastic waste would be global. It is fantastic that UK scientists and facilities are helping to lead the way.”
UK consumers use around 13 billion plastic drinks bottles a year but more than three billion are not recycled.
However, the enzyme is a number of years away from being deployed on a widespread scale.
It will need to degrade PET faster than its current time of a few days before becoming economically viable.