Scientists engineer plastic-eating enzyme

Scientists engineer plastic-eating enzyme

The enzyme digests the element polyethylene terephthalate, used in plastic bottles.

Despite recycling efforts, most plastic can persist for hundreds of years in the environment, so researchers are searching for better ways to eliminate it.

"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 Prof John McGeehan. During this work, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

"The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels", said McGeehan.

The team had been looking originally at another enzyme called PETease which had evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan.

AN ENZYME that gobbles up plastic could be the answer to the world's recycling headache, say British scientists. The team is now working to continue refining the engineered enzyme to make it even more effective. Using intense X-rays at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire, the team inadvertently created a powerful new version of the protein. Through this method they wound up with a ultra-high resolution 3D model of PETase.

One area of the PETase was a bit different, though, and researchers hypothesized that this was the part that allowed it to degrade man-made plastic.

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This led to a serendipitous change in the enzyme's actions - allowing its plastic-eating abilities to work faster.

Up to five developing countries will be supported to help them meet the ambitious political commitments they have made by signing up to the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance.

The cash will be used for grants, innovation challenges and events to raise the profile of the plastic problem and fund the development of alternative materials and new, zero-waste manufacturing processes.

The structure of the enzyme looked very similar to one evolved by many bacteria to break down cutin, a natural polymer used as a protective coating by plants. The trait indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET. To test that hypothesis, the researchers mutated the PETase active site to make it more like a cutinase.

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

With the hope of developing a solution to the world's chronic plastic pollution problem, British and American researchers chose to study the enzyme that the bacteria were using to digest this ubiquitous substance-and now they've made a stunning discovery.

PET was patented back in the 1940s, and while that seems like a long time ago, in evolutionary terms it's pretty recent.

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