Researchers accidentally create plastic-eating enzyme

Researchers accidentally create plastic-eating enzyme

Prof. John McGeehan, an X-ray crystallographer at the University of Portsmouth, stands next to equipment at the Diamond Light Source, the United Kingdom national synchrotron, that he used to reveal the atomic structure of an enzyme his team has engineered to digest a common form of plastic.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that is able to recycle plastic bottles.

Researchers have created a chemical that can break plastic down in a matter of hours - compared to the hundreds of years it takes for it to decompose in the Nature.

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.

But in the meantime, if we can get some these enzymes working on the task, safely reducing the amount of virgin PET being produced certainly couldn't hurt. saving the world, one accidental mutant lab creation at a time.

"[PET] has only been around in vast quantities over the last 50 years, so it's actually not a very long timescale for a bacteria to have evolved to eat something so man-made", commented Prof John McGeehan, who was involved in the current study.

Professor McGeehan added: "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 that they can be sustainably recycled".




"Surprisingly, we found that the PETase mutant outperforms the wild-type PETase in degrading PET", says NREL materials scientist Nic Rorrer.

PETase was also tested on PEF plastic, a proposed plant-based alternative to PET that is similarly slow to degrade in nature.

"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 that they can be sustainably recycled", says McGeehan.

The research team can now apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it.

"What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimised to degrade PET", biotechnologist Gregg Beckham from NREL explains.

"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan. "It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years and make a super-fast enzyme". The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not. "Few could have predicted that in the space of 50 years, single-use plastics such as drink bottles would be found washed up on beaches across the globe", said McGeehan.

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