Scientists think new 'plastic-eating' enzyme could solve waste issues

17 April, 2018, 18:50 | Author: Franklin Nunez
  • Theresa May is expected to launch a multi-million-pound bid to help rid the oceans of plastic pollution

This bug was discovered in 2016 at a PET-bottle recycling plant in Sakai, Japan.

One man's trash is this enzyme's lunch.

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

Independent of the U.S. DOE and United Kingdom work, researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology were studying the natural enzyme's structure and they too claimed they found a way to improve its PET degradation potential.

The findings of the team were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

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Researchers created the plastic-digesting protein accidentally while investigating its natural counterpart.

A high definition 3D model of the enzyme was created, using the powerful x-ray beamline at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire.

To begin experiments, the research team wanted to find out exactly how effective PETase was at digesting PET. NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe and postdoctoral researcher Nic Rorrer tested PETase by taking samples of PET from the soda bottles in Beckham's office and ran an experiment with PETase.

Professor McGeehan said: "The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels - the technology exists and it's well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET and potentially other substrates like PEF, PLA and PBS, back into their original building blocks so they can be sustainably sustained".

"These enzymes are not abundantly present in nature, so you would need to produce the enzyme first, then add it to the PET plastic to degrade it", Wim Soetaert, head of the Industrial Biotechnology Centre at the University of Ghent, pointed out.

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Hypothesising that the PETase enzyme must have evolved in the presence of PET to figure out how to degrade the plastic, the researchers mutated PETase's active site, to see if they could bring it closer to another enzyme, called cutinase.

"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme", said Professor John McGeehan, professor of Structural Biology and co-director of the Institute of Biomedical & Bimolecular Science at the University of Portsmouth, who led the research.

The scientist community is also excited about the evolvement of the enzyme as it could be very helpful solution to control pollution. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not.

It could also attack another form of plastic, polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles. It's possible that within the next few years there could be an industrially viable process for turning PET into other substances or back into its "original building blocks" so it can be sustainably recycled, he added.

The breakthrough was welcomed by scientists not involved in the project - although they cautioned that more research is needed to speed up the process.

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