Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Scientists create plastic-eating enzyme, could help in fighting pollution

Theresa May at a conference PAMay has asked for Britain to help clear the plastic waste in the world's ocean
| 17 April, 2018, 20:30

Two scientists have accidentally stumbled upon an organic enzyme that can eat some of our worst polluting plastics, providing a possible solution to what is arguably one of the world's biggest environmental problems.

The battle against plastic pollution has taken an unexpected turn as an worldwide scientist team develops an enzyme which naturally digests PET as its main energy source.

University of Portsmouth biologist Professor John McGeehan and his colleagues were attempting to verify the claim when they "accidentally created a super-powered version of the plastic-eating enzyme", The Independent reports. But if that hunger happens to be for the plastic used to make single-use bottles - something that doesn't generally degrade in nature and is basically the scourge of modern humanity - I'd say break out the champagne and cigars.

Professor John McGeehan and his team from the University of Portsmouth along with Dr Gregg Beckham from the US Department of Energy's National Renewable lab had both been trying to find a way of combating this plastic pest when they stumbled on the solution. Using beamline I23, an ultra-high-resolution 3D model of the PETase enzyme was generated.

However, Ideonella sakaiensis on its own is not useful in industrial recycling on its own as it digests plastic too slowly.

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. These differences indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET. So, the researchers improved the structure of bacteria by adding amino acids.


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

"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", said McGeehan.

Prof McGeehan said few could have predicted since plastics became popular in the 1960s that huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and they did it completely by accident.

Now however, The Guardian is reporting that the discovery of an enzyme in a Japanese dump in 2016 has now reaped dividends enormously thanks to an accidental breakthrough made by a team of scientists from the University of Portsmouth, UK. The research team used this 3-D information to better understand how PETase works, which led to engineering an enzyme even better at degrading plastic.

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