"What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic", McGeehan said. However it is a much more hard process and an expensive one compared to other materials, but it seems that scientists might have come up with a way to deal with our plastic problem.
Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged £61.4 million to tackle marine plastic pollution through a global alliance of Commonwealth states.
Researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme thought to have evolved in a waste recycling center in Japan. The research team believes there is potential to accelerate this process even more with further modification. This suggests there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics'.
"I'm excited that we share the same vision and understand the pressing need to take action and find meaningful solutions to the plastics problem".
Working with USA colleagues, the Portsmouth scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire.
With help from the computational modeling scientists at the University of South Florida and the University of Campinas in Brazil, the team discovered that PETase looks very similar to a cutinase, but it has some unusual features including a more open active site, able to accommodate man-made rather than natural polymers.
One possible improvement being explored is to transplant the mutant enzyme into an "extremophile bacteria" that can survive temperatures above the 70C melting point of PET - the plastic is likely to degrade 10-100 times faster when molten.
While they didn't expect it, this adjustment ended up showing the enzyme could still be further optimised in terms of breaking down plastics.
Despite recycling efforts, most plastic can persist for hundreds of years in the environment, so researchers are searching for better ways to eliminate it.
Professor McGeehan said: "The Diamond Light Source recently created one of the most advanced X-ray beamlines in the world and having access to this facility allowed us to see the 3D atomic structure of PETase in incredible detail".
PET was patented back in the 1940s, and while that seems like a long time ago, in evolutionary terms it's pretty recent.
"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, an expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University.
Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, agreed the enzyme could be useful but added: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions".