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Plastic-Eating Enzyme Accidentally Developed By Scientists

Accidentally developed plastic-eating enzyme by the scientists to put a stop on plastic pollution problems

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Plastic pollution.
Pollution caused due to plastic. Pixabay
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Scientists have accidentally developed a plastic-eating enzyme that may be used to combat one of the world’s worst pollution problems, a media report said.

Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme found in a waste recycling centre a few years ago in Japan, CNN reported on Tuesday.

The finding was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They said the enzyme, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, is able to “eat” polyethylene terephthalate, PET, which was patented as a plastic in the 1940s and is used in millions of tonnes of plastic bottles.

A scientist working with a microscope.
A Scientist. Pixabay

Their aim was to study its structure, but they accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics.

“We hoped to determine its structure to aid in protein engineering, but we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics,” said NREL’s lead researcher Gregg Beckham.

The discovery could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of PET, which currently persists for hundreds of years in the environment, the University of Portsmouth said on its website.

“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,” said Professor McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth.

The enzyme can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles, CNN reported.

Also Read: Daylight Turns Plastic Sheet into Germ-Killing Material

PEF plastics, although bio-based, are not biodegradable, and would still end up as waste in landfills and in the seas, the NREL said.

According to a three-year study published in Scientific Reports last month, a huge, swirling pile of trash in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is growing faster than expected and is now three times the size of France, more than double the size of Texas.  IANS

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Old Dusty Kilogram Swapped for Something More Stable: Scientists

It has taken years of work to fine-tune the new definition to ensure the switchover will be smooth.

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Kilogram
The International Prototype of the Kilogram (IPK) is pictured in Paris, France, in this undated photo obtained from social media. VOA

After years of nursing a sometimes dusty cylinder of metal in a vault outside Paris as the global reference for modern mass, scientists are updating the definition of the kilogram.

Just as the redefinition of the second in 1967 helped to ease communication across the world via technologies like GPS and the internet, experts say the change in the kilogram will be better for technology, retail and health — though it probably won’t change the price of fish much.

The kilogram has been defined since 1889 by a shiny piece of platinum-iridium held in Paris. All modern mass measurements are traceable back to it — from micrograms of pharmaceutical medicines to kilos of apples and pears and tons of steel or cement.

kilogram, weight
Border Security Force officials showing 17 kilogram heroine.

The problem is, the “international prototype kilogram” doesn’t always weigh the same. Even inside its three glass bell jars, it gets dusty and dirty, and is affected by the atmosphere. Sometimes, it really needs a wash.

“We live in a modern world. There are pollutants in the atmosphere that can stick to the mass,” said Ian Robinson, a specialist in the engineering, materials and electrical science department at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory.

“So when you just get it out of the vault, it’s slightly dirty. But the whole process of cleaning or handling or using the mass can change its mass. So it’s not the best way, perhaps, of defining mass.”

What’s needed is something more constant.

kilogram, weight
The Kilogram. Flickr

So, at the end of a week-long meeting in the Palace of Versailles, Paris, the world’s leading measurement aficionados at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures will vote Friday to make an “electronic kilogram” the new baseline measure of mass.

Just as the meter — once the length of a bar of platinum-iridium, also kept in Paris — is now defined by the constant speed of light in a vacuum, so a kilogram will be defined by a tiny but immutable fundamental value called the “Planck constant.”

The new definition involves an apparatus called the Kibble balance, which makes use of the constant to measure the mass of an object using a precisely measured electromagnetic force.

Paris,diesel,kilogram, weight
The kilogram has been defined since 1889 by a shiny piece of platinum-iridium held in Paris.VOA

“In the present system, you have to relate small masses to large masses by subdivision. That’s very difficult — and the uncertainties build up very, very quickly,” Robinson said.

“One of the things this [new] technique allows us to do is to actually measure mass directly at whatever scale we like, and that’s a big step forward.”

Also Read: NASA to Send Organ-on-Chips to Test Human Tissue Health in Space

He said it had taken years of work to fine-tune the new definition to ensure the switchover will be smooth.

But while the extra accuracy will be a boon to scientists, Robinson said that, for the average consumer buying flour or bananas, “there will be absolutely no change whatsoever.” (VOA)