Scientists accidentally engineer an enzyme that eats plastic

Theresa May is expected to launch a multi-million-pound bid to help rid the oceans of plastic pollution

Theresa May is expected to launch a multi-million-pound bid to help rid the oceans of plastic pollution

During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

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.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Portsmouth say they have tweaked a bacterium's enzyme to improve its ability to degrade PET.

According to Innova Market Insights data, 58 percent of globally launched food and beverage products are packaged in plastic, a 5 percent increase from 2013, while 96 percent of all newly launched water products in 2017 are packaged in PET bottles.

As the researchers were using the 3D information of this stucture to understand how it works, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

Now the researchers are trying to improve the new enzyme so they can put it to work eating up all the plastic out there.

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Now imagine something as simple as a microbe that can degrade those plastic bottles.

The discovery follows research published by BRITA UK and environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy today (17 April), which found that only 17% of consumers are strongly committed to finding alternatives to single-use plastic bottles.

"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", said McGeehan. By shining intense beams of X-rays on it, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, they were able to see individual atoms.

Using the PETase blueprint provided by the Diamond Light Sources, the scientists re-engineered an active region of the molecule.

'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, ' Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, told The Guardian. Experts estimate that by 2050, there will be as much waste plastic in the ocean by mass as there are fish.

The switch to PET was never the less "quite unexpected" and an worldwide team of scientists set out to determine how the PETase enzyme had evolved.

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"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", he said.

With help from the computational modeling scientists at the University of South Florida and the University of Campinas in Brazil, the team discovered that PETase looks very similar to a cutinase, but it has some unusual features including a more open active site, able to accommodate man-made rather than natural polymers.

This could revolutionise the recycling process, allowing plastics to be re-used more effectively. But instead of the mutated PETase proving more ineffective at degrading PET, the team found the opposite, that it actually performed better.

The team is now working to see if it can be improved to work faster and, in the long term, become a tool used to recycle PET plastic on an industrial scale by reducing it back to its building blocks so it can be reused.

"They protect plant leaves", explained the University of Portsmouth researcher.

The breakthrough was welcomed by scientists not involved in the project - although they cautioned that more research is needed to speed up the process.

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