Scientists Accidentally Create A Plastic-Eating Enzyme

17 April, 2018, 20:20 | Author: Kathy Ellis
  • A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced

The battle to curb plastic pollution has received a major boost after scientists developed a way to make recycling much quicker and cheaper.

Scientists from Portsmouth University and the Diamond Light Source are part of an worldwide team that has engineered an enzyme with the potential to digest certain plastics.

The global team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles.

The urgency of this work is as striking as the images pulled from recent headlines: 8 million metric tons of plastic waste, including PET bottles, enter the oceans each year, creating huge man-made islands of garbage.

The team revealed how the enzyme's structure was remarkably similar to one used by bacteria to break down cutin, a natural polymer used as a protective coating by plants.

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said John McGeehan, a biology professor at the University of Portsmouth and one of the lead scientists on the research.

While the mutant PETase is so far only about 20 percent more efficient at breaking down plastic than the naturally occurring enzyme, the team says the important thing is we now know these enzymes can be optimised and augmented. Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is much more room to further improve these enzymes, moving scientists closer to solving the problem of an ever-growing amount of discarded plastics that take centuries to biodegrade.

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Professor John McGeehan at work in his laboratory.

Known as Ideonella sakaiensis, it appears to feed exclusively on a type of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used widely in plastic bottles.

The new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, began by determining the precise structure of the enzyme produced by the Japanese bug.

Despite recycling efforts, most plastic can persist for hundreds of years in the environment, so researchers are searching for better ways to eliminate it. And the problem with the recycled plastic is that it can only be turned into fiber that is used in other applications; think carpeting, fleece and tote bags.

The past few months in particular have shone a bright spotlight on the issues of plastic waste - especially plastic bottles - not only in our surroundings, but across the world's oceans in the form of microplastics.

Another significant aspect of the research: the discovery that PETase can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics.

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".

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