Scientists accidentally create plastic-eating mutant enzyme

Scientists accidentally create plastic-eating mutant enzyme

Scientists accidentally create plastic-eating mutant enzyme

The bacterium had naturally evolved to eat plastic. The engineered enzyme represents the first option to recycle plastic bottles entirely with no apparent risk.

"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock", Professor John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research, told the Guardian.

"It's well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET, and potentially other (plastics), back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled", John McGeehan told Reuters. "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment", McGeehan was quoted as saying. "This unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics". The bad news: it doesn't work fast enough to solve plastic recycling at the industrial scale.

Laura Winningham, CEO of hunger relief charity City Harvest London, called the discovery a "truly exciting development", adding that the enzyme could "complement [the charity's] work and make a tremendous environmental difference".

The full study will be published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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McGeehan and colleagues were examining the structure of the natural, PET-degrading enzyme when they found they could increase the degradation rate by manipulating the chemical structure of the enzyme.

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. PET sinks in seawater but some scientists have conjectured that plastic-eating bugs might one day be sprayed on the huge plastic garbage patches in the oceans to clean them up. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle".

The team's goal is to use their findings to continue to improve the new enzymes to break down these man-made plastics, but in a fraction of the time.

Since the bacteria's discovery, scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory have been trying to better understand how the bacteria is able to digest the plastic.

"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. "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 differences indicated that PETase must have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.

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