Wednesday, 25 April, 2018

Scientists create plastic-eating mutant enzyme

A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced
Heather Davidson | 17 April, 2018, 18:51

It has the capacity to digest PET plastic that was patented in the 1940s and now used in million tons, especially to manufacture bottles. During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

We may have a new weapon in our fight against the rising tide of plastic pollution - and it was discovered by accident.

British scientists have engineered an enzyme which can digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used in single-use plastic bottles and other common packaging.

One possible improvement being explored is to transplant the mutant enzyme into an "extremophile bacteria" that can survive temperatures above the 70C melting point of PET - the plastic is likely to degrade 10-100 times faster when molten.

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. They believe it could offer a viable long-term and large-scale solution to global plastic pollution by supporting a circular recycling model in which plastics are broken-down and reused at end-of-life.

An worldwide team of scientists has created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drink bottles, according to the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (the link is down at time of writing).

"We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these "wonder materials" must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions".

Working with the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire. But while manipulating the enzyme, the worldwide team inadvertently improved its ability to devour plastic. "After just 96 hours you can see clearly via electron microscopy that the PETase is degrading PET", said Donohoe.

Lead scientist Professor John McGeehan, from the University of Portsmouth, said: "Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research, and our discovery here is no exception".

Plastic waste is a massive issue for the environment, with tonnes of it entering our oceans and being dumped in landfills every day. But instead of the mutated PETase proving more ineffective at degrading PET, the team found the opposite, that it actually performed better.

The research was funded by the University of Portsmouth, NREL and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The enzyme can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles, CNN reported.

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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