Scientists accidentally create possible pollution solution - an enzyme that eats plastic

Image underwater showing plastic wrappers

Image underwater showing plastic wrappers

Japanese researchers believe the bacterium evolved fairly recently in a waste recycling centre, since plastics were not invented until the 1940s.

The research was led by teams at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom and the U.S. department of energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 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 Government said £25m of the fund is available to help researchers investigate the issue of marine plastic from a scientific, economic and social perspective.

Finding the enzyme was helping a bacteria to break down, or digest, PET plastic, the researchers chose to "tweak" its structure by adding amino acids, said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work.

The team, whose finding was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, is working on improving the enzyme further to make it capable of breaking down PET plastics on an industrial scale.

Professor 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". 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'. Enzymes are a form of protein that act as catalysts in biochemical reactions.


"We've made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already", Professor McGeehan told Reuters.

The Environment Ministry has notified the amended rules on plastic waste management that prescribe a central system for the registration of producers and importers.

Then, with help of computational modelling and scientists at the University of South Florida and the University of Campinas in Brazil, the team discovered PETase may have evolved in a PET-heavy environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.

One possible improvement being explored is to transplant the mutant enzyme into an "extremophile bacteria" that can survive temperatures above the 70C melting point of PET - the plastic is likely to degrade 10-100 times faster when molten. To test that hypothesis, the researchers mutated the PETase active site to make it more like a cutinase.

"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.

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