Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic waste
Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic waste
A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced
17 April, 2018, 20:29
Corporations and retailers are wrapping everything from avocados to t-shirts in throwaway plastic packaging that eventually finds its way into our oceans, all in the name of convenience. Whats worse, we know that more than 90% of the plastics ever created have not been recycled; theres simply too much plastic for us to recycle away the problem.
The researchers, from the United Kingdom and the U.S., made the discovery as they examined a naturally-occurring enzyme that evolved in a plastic disposal centre in Japan. Coca-Cola, for example, which produces more than 100 billion plastic bottles a year, according to Greenpeace, has promised to increase the recycled content of its bottles 50 percent by 2020.
Prof John McGeehan at Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at the NREL initially solved the crystal structure of a recently-discovered natural enzyme that digests PET known as "PETase".
The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan. 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'.
Scientists from the University of South Florida and the University of Campinas in Brazil did computer modeling which showed PETase looked similar to another enzyme, cutinase, found in fungus and bacteria. To test this theory, the researchers mutated the PETase and that was when the unexpected happened. This change in the structure of the bacteria enhanced its ability to eat plastics faster. Little of this is recycled, which means we are polluting our environment with materials that take centuries to degrade, much of which washes out into the ocean where it breaks into tiny pieces that are almost impossible to track, let alone clean up. These differences indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.
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Another significant aspect of the research: the discovery that PETase can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics.
"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle". The team is now working to continue refining the engineered enzyme to make it even more effective.
Prof McGeehan said few could have predicted since plastics became popular in the 1960s that huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world.
He also added, "We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these "wonder-materials", must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions". A patent has been filed on the specific mutant enzyme by the Portsmouth researchers and those from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
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