Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles

Scientists Discover Enzyme That Eats The Worst Polluting Plastics

More than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans every year, and concern is mounting over this petroleum-derived product's toxic legacy on human health and the environment.

Prof. John McGeehan, an X-ray crystallographer at the University of Portsmouth, stands next to equipment at the Diamond Light Source, the United Kingdom national synchrotron, that he used to reveal the atomic structure of an enzyme his team has engineered to digest a common form of plastic.

The scientists unintentionally engineered the enzyme while studying PETase, a recently discovered natural enzyme that digests a type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, which can exist in the environment for centuries.

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 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.

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By revealing the detailed structure of the enzyme, the team believes that it could, for the first time, allow for the full recycling of all plastic bottles, drastically cutting the amount of plastic waste in the world. "Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics". These differences indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET. So, the researchers improved the structure of bacteria by adding amino acids.

Finding that this enzyme was helping a bacteria to break down, or digest, PET plastic, the researchers made a decision to "tweak" its structure by adding some amino acids, said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work. "This shows that by using PETase, PEF is even more biodegradable than PET". And the problem with the recycled plastic is that it can only be turned into fiber that is used in other applications; think carpeting, fleece and tote bags.

It was discovered that this bacteria could break down or digest PET plastics.

By contrast, the new synthetic enzyme could allow for plastic to be quickly - and endlessly - recycled. "Few could have predicted that in the space of 50 years, single-use plastics such as drink bottles would be found washed up on beaches across the globe", said McGeehan.

"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". But instead of the mutated PETase proving more ineffective at degrading PET, the team found the opposite, that it actually performed better.

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