Pollution solution? Protein eats plastic

Scientists Discover Enzyme That Eats The Worst Polluting Plastics

The battle to curb plastic pollution has received a major boost after scientists developed a way to make recycling much quicker and cheaper.

Research scientists have engineered an enzyme that digests common plastics, a discovery that came about by accident.

"But they ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics", said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed U.S. journal. A team of researchers from the United States and Britain have just recently created a microbe accidentally that later found to be eating soda bottles being the enzyme's habitat. The scientists knew this enzyme, discovered in 2016, was helping a bacteria to break down PET, so they used an intense beam of x-rays to examine its structure.

The creation of the enzyme occurred by chance when the team, led by Professor John Makhijani from the University of Portsmouth, forged bacterium, discovered in a landfill in Japan.

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The mutant enzyme only takes days to begin breaking down plastics, a lot faster than the centuries it takes plastics to decay in the ocean. "Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics".

"[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. "What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimized to degrade PET-and now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it".

McGeehan also said, "It's well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET, and potentially other (plastics), back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled".

"There is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem by breaking down some of the most commonly used plastics".

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Increasing the volume of plastic that is recycled could significantly cut the amount that finds its way into the sea, which now stands at about a truck load every single minute worldwide. 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.

Though the rise of plastics since the 1960s has led to tons of trash floating around the world's oceans, the discovery brings hope that plastic bottles will soon stop their accumulation in our water. 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.

McGeehan's team reportedly tweaked the PETase to better understand its structure.

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