Fortuitously Produced Enzyme Eats Plastic Helping Combat Plastic Pollution

17 April, 2018, 18:46 | Author: Terri Saunders
  • Theresa May is expected to launch a multi-million-pound bid to help rid the oceans of plastic pollution

A Friends of the Earth Europe spokesman said: "This is a step forward on plastic recycling", and urged researchers, government and the retail and packaging industries to work together to boost recycling levels and continue creating innovative materials that are safe for the environment. During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

An engineered enzyme that eats plastic could usher in a recycling revolution, scientists hope.

By studying the structure of an existing enzyme previously found to be useful at digesting plastic, researchers at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) created a mutant version that works even more effectively.

Bottles made from PET are used to package 70% of soft drinks, fruit juices and mineral waters, according to the British Plastics Federation.

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.

"Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics", said Prof McGeehan.

This file photo taken on September 17, 2015 shows a Chinese labourer sorting out plastic bottles for recycling in Dong Xiao Kou village, on the outskirt of Beijing.

The findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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To analyse PETease, the teams employed the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire. But while manipulating the enzyme, the global team inadvertently improved its ability to devour plastic.

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception, "says structural biologist John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth in the UK". Experts estimate that by 2050, there will be as much waste plastic in the ocean by mass as there are fish.

"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.

The scientist community is also excited about the evolvement of the enzyme as it could be very helpful solution to control pollution.

"What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimised to degrade PET", biotechnologist Gregg Beckham from NREL explains. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle".

The team is now working to see if it can be improved to work faster and, in the long term, become a tool used to recycle PET plastic on an industrial scale by reducing it back to its building blocks so it can be reused.

"This research is just the beginning and there is much more to be done in this area", said Harry Austin, the postgraduate student who was the lead author on the researchers' paper.

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