PITTSBURGH (CBS) — Scientists in Britain and the United States say they have engineered a plastic-eating enzyme that could help in the fight against pollution.

The enzyme is able to digest polyethylene terephthalate, or PET – a form of plastic patented in the 1940s and now used in millions of tonnes of plastic bottles. PET plastics can persist for hundreds of years in the environment and currently pollute large areas of land and sea worldwide.

Researchers from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and the U.S. 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 centre in Japan.

Finding that this enzyme was helping a bacteria to break down, or digest, PET plastic, the researchers decided to “tweak” its structure by adding some amino acids, said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work.

This led to a serendipitous change in the enzyme’s actions – allowing its plastic-eating abilities to work faster.

“We’ve made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already,” McGeehan told Reuters in an interview.

“That’s really exciting because that means that there’s potential to optimise the enzyme even further.”

The team, whose finding was published on Monday (April 16) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, is now working on improving the enzyme further to see if they can make it capable of breaking down PET plastics on an industrial scale.

“In the same way that washing power detergents were developed and made more stable, being able to work at high temperature or low temperatures, we’re going to do the same with this enzyme and hopefully create something that we can use on an industrial scale,” McGeehan said.

Independent scientists not directly involved with the research said it was exciting news but cautioned that the enzyme’s development as a potential solution for pollution was still at an early stage.