Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Markets | By Josh Butler

Research Team Engineers a Better Plastic-Degrading Enzyme

Research Team Engineers a Better Plastic-Degrading Enzyme

At the moment PET takes hundreds of years to break down in the natural environment and is a major contributor to land and sea pollution.

The discovery by researchers in the United Kingdom and USA could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles and food containers made of polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET.

Researchers think the enzyme evolved in a Japanese waste recycling center.

When the team tweaked the structure of the enzyme by adding some amino acids, tests showed that it made the molecule even better at breaking down PET plastic.

The global team, led by Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, UK, tested the evolutionary process of the enzyme, inadvertently discovering that they had improved the capabilities of the enzyme in breaking down PET bottles.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme so that it can be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

"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.

'It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment'.

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The findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This ultra-powerful microscope is able to fire intense X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, giving the scientists the ability to examine the 3D atomic structure of the enzyme.

It could also attack another form of plastic, polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

PET now lasts for hundreds of years in the environment and this accidental discovery could provide a viable recycling solution for millions of tonnes of bottles and packaging.

"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock".

While the invention of highly durable plastics has had positive impacts for humankind's quality of life, it's that very durability that is causing the plastics pollution problem.

Prof McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: "Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world".

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and they did it completely by accident. 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. The research team used this 3-D information to better understand how PETase works, which led to engineering an enzyme even better at degrading plastic.

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