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Creating plastic-eating enzymes that could save us from pollution

A photograph taken inside a laboratory. What's visible is an array of scientific equipment, Post-it notes –  and two toy animals (a fox and a rabbit) sitting on a shelf.

Researchers are on a quest to develop enzymes that can break down plastics so they can be 100% recycled

The world produces about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. Much of it ends up in landfills, and a significant portion is polluting the world’s oceans. Yet even when plastic is recycled, the process degrades the material, limiting its future recyclability.


Plastic is a great material; the issue is how we deal with it at its end of life. And we’re really bad at that – so we really need solutions

John McGeehan, structural biologist

A photograph of John McGeehan at work.

While we can attempt to reduce our dependence on plastic, industries like food and medicine can’t simply replace it. So scientists John McGeehan, Rosie Graham, and their colleagues at the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, are developing a different solution: a fully circular plastic economy. The idea is to use enzymes to break down plastic polymers so that they can be 100% recycled back to their initial state – or even upcycling degraded material back to the quality of virgin plastic. 

In the video above, John and Rosie explain how a chance email to the AlphaFold team has accelerated their work.

Links and further reading:

A pair of medical-gloved hands holding a pipette and receptacle.