Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Finance | By Gustavo Carr

Scientists Have Accidentally Created a Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic Waste

Scientists Have Accidentally Created a Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic Waste

But in a new twist, British and American scientists have announced that while studying this bacteria, they accidentally created a mutant enzyme that's even more efficient at breaking down plastic bottles.

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 discovery by researchers in the United Kingdom and U.S. could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles and food containers made of polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET.

Furthermore, efforts to recycle the abundance of these bottles have been limited by the technology available that can only re-use the plastic in a small range of products.

In collaboration with scientists at the Diamond Light Source in the UK, Professor McGeehan and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL used a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.

The researchers were initially inspired by the discovery of a bacterium in 2016 in Japan that had naturally evolved to eat plastic found at waste dumps. This suggests there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics'.

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

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme so it can be used to break down plastics in an industrial setting.

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

Once they understood its structure, the team noted that they could improve the performance of PETase by adjusting a few residues on its surface.

The goal was to determine its structure, but they ended up engineering an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics. "There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable".

By contrast, the new synthetic enzyme could allow for plastic to be quickly - and endlessly - recycled.

The discovery could be a step toward eliminating the huge swaths of plastic waste often found floating in oceans or washed up on beaches all over the world, the researchers said. "But the scientific community who ultimately created these 'wonder-materials, ' must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions".

Scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department´s National Renewable Energy Laboratory made a decision to focus on a naturally occurring bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago.

"After just 96 hours you can see clearly via electron microscopy that the PETase is degrading PET", says NREL structural biologist Bryon Donohoe.

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