Plastic-eating enzyme holds promise in fight against pollution

18 April, 2018, 00:35 | Author: Regina Lloyd
  • Theresa May at a conference

Now, The Guardian reports that an worldwide team of scientists has engineered a mutant version of the plastic-munching bacteria that's 20 percent more efficient.

The team's finding was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Now, they've unlocked the structure of a critical enzyme that it produces.

Scientists investigating a naturally occuring bacterium have accidentally created a new enzyme that can digest plastic bottles.

John McGeehan, University of Portsmouth professor, told The Guardian, "It is a modest improvement - 20 percent better - but that is not the point". "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment".

With the new enzyme, however, the idea is it that it can be put to use to turn old plastic into new plastic.

In 2015, another study found between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, but in an interview with Reuters, McGeehan said he and his team are hopeful their research will lead to a large-scale recycling process.




"We originally set out to determine how this enzyme evolved from breaking down cutin - the waxy substance on the surface of plants - with cutinase, to degrading synthetic PET with PETase", said NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe.

The microbe uses an enzyme called PETase to break down the plastic it consumes. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle".

NREL and the University of Portsmouth collaborated closely with a multidisciplinary research team at the Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom, a large synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms. "But this material has only existed for 50 years, so to have an enzyme that eats this man-made material is really stunning", McGeehan said.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) stumbled upon a biological catalyst that's better at degrading polyethylene terephthalate (PET) than the one evolved in nature. "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 sheer magnitude of the plastic pollution problem on planet Earth can no longer be ignored, as plastics can be spotted covering beachings, floating in oceans, and even lining the stomachs of whales. Plastic pollution is fast becoming one of the biggest environmental issues of our time. "The enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large quantities by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a chemistry expert at the University of Melbourne.

These mutant enzymes with a taste for waste could lead to the full recycling of single-use bottles. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".

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