Scientists Create Enzyme That Eats Plastic Bottles

Randall Padilla
April 17, 2018

PET plastics can persist for hundreds of years in the environment and now pollute large areas of land and sea worldwide.

One man's trash is this enzyme's lunch.

Research in the United Kingdom was inspired by the discovery of the first bacterium, with a natural enzyme called PETase, that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan.

The team will now work to improve the enzyme even further with Professor McGeehan confident that we could finally have a viable recycling solution for these plastics within just a few years.

As the researchers were using the 3D information of this stucture to understand how it works, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature. 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'.

By revealing the detailed structure of the enzyme, the team believes that it could, for the first time, allow for the full recycling of all plastic bottles, drastically cutting the amount of plastic waste in the world.

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).

"The Diamond Light Source recently created one of the most advanced X-ray beamlines in the world and having access to this facility allowed us to see the 3D atomic structure of PETase in incredible detail".

"What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic", said Dr. John McGeehan, who co-led the research.

"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 Beckham.

Plastic waste is a massive issue for the environment, with tonnes of it entering our oceans and being dumped in landfills every day. "It will be interesting to see whether, based on this study, the performance of the enzyme can be improved and made suitable for industrial-scale application in the recycling and the future circular economy of plastic".

The scientist community is also excited about the evolvement of the enzyme as it could be very helpful solution to control pollution. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle". "Surprisingly, we found that the PETase mutant outperforms the wild-type PETase in degrading PET", said Rorrer.

The researchers say the PETase mutant enzyme could also be used to degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF, ) which is a newer polymer that's being increasingly used to make bottles.

The work reported in PNAS was enabled by funding from NREL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program, the University of Portsmouth, and the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

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