Monday, 23 July, 2018

Scientists Discover Enzyme That Eats The Worst Polluting Plastics

Scientists Discover Enzyme That Eats The Worst Polluting Plastics Scientists accidentally engineer a plastic-eating enzyme
Cristina Norman | 17 April, 2018, 20:24

The research team believes that the enzyme has great potential in the global fight against plastic pollution.

Scientists from Portsmouth University and the Diamond Light Source are part of an worldwide team that has engineered an enzyme with the potential to digest certain plastics.

Another is the recently discovered enzyme that consumes PET plastics called PETase, which scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) used as a starting point for their groundbreaking research.

But the breakthrough was made unintentionally when tests were conducted on the naturally occurring bacteria found in a Japanese recycling centre, further testing showed that it caused it to mutate into a more powerful enzyme. During this work, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

"To find an enzyme that breaks plastic down so quickly is really exciting", said University of Portsmouth professor John McGeehan.

"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 McGeehan.

"[PET] has only been around in vast quantities over the last 50 years, so it's actually not a very long timescale for a bacteria to have evolved to eat something so man-made", commented Prof John McGeehan, who was involved in the current study. (Let that sink in for just a second.) We recycle a measly 14 percent of that, much of the rest ending up in the ocean, which is slowly becoming a giant pot of animal-killing plastic soup.

Once they understood its structure, the team noted that they could improve the performance of PETase by adjusting a few residues on its surface.

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.

The goal was to determine its structure, but they ended up engineering an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics. But, more significantly, it can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF) - a bio-based substitute for PET plastics being hailed as a replacement for glass bottles.

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

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University.

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