Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Economy | By Shawn Conner

Scientists 'accidentally' create plastic-eating enzyme

Scientists 'accidentally' create plastic-eating enzyme

Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said: "I think [the new research] is very exciting work, showing there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem".

British researchers created the plastic-digesting protein accidentally while investigating its natural counterpart.

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 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.

The researchers, from the United Kingdom and the USA, made the discovery as they examined a naturally-occurring enzyme that evolved in a plastic disposal centre in Japan.

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"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said University of Portsmouth professor John McGeehan, who conducted the research with Gregg Beckham of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, ) in a statement.

But progress is slow, partly because big businesses have aesthetic concerns about bottles made from 100-percent recycled plastic. The team's plan was to tweak the enzyme to see how it evolved, but it seems that their efforts at trying to better understand the enzyme inadvertently resulted in creating a more effective enzyme.

The new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, began by determining the precise structure of the enzyme produced by the Japanese bug.

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.

Researchers say they are now working on further improvements to the enzyme, with the hope of eventually scaling it up for industrial use in breaking down plastics.

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"We see an industrial process where the waste is collected and - rather than incinerate it or throw it in landfill as it often is at the moment- the enzyme is thrown in to a huge Value-Added Tax".

The new chemical is based on the discovery in 2016 of a new species bacteria species that has evolved to feed exclusively on plastic. To test that hypothesis, the researchers mutated the PETase active site to make it more like a cutinase.

Key to the breakthrough were observations that, at this high resolution, PETase appears very similar to the enzyme cutinase, but with a few notable differences.

That's a problem, given the vast scale of plastic pollution on the planet, with billions of tonnes of discarded waste piling up in landfills and spilling into our oceans, where it even threatens to crowd out fish - seriously.

Chief Executive of the Diamond Light Source, Professor Andrew Harrison, said: "With input from five institutions in three different countries, this research is a fine example of how worldwide collaboration can help make significant scientific breakthroughs".

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