Nature bites back: Scientists modify plastic-digesting enzyme

David Jones

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.

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

PET persists for hundreds of years in the environment before it degrades and the discovery may mean that significantly more plastic waste could be recycled.

A high definition 3D model of the enzyme was created, using the powerful x-ray beamline at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire.

John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom who co-led the work, said that the discovery was very exciting because it meant that "there's potential to optimise the enzyme even further".

"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.

The engineered enzyme has the added benefit of being able to degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a PET alternative that has been floated as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

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They and Gregg Beckham are among the worldwide team of researchers who are working to further improve the enzyme to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

The researchers´ goal was to understand how one of its enzymes - called PETase - worked, by figuring out its structure. "This shows that by using PETase, PEF is even more biodegradable than PET".

National Geographic will commit $10 million (£7m) and bring its scientific expertise, grants and media to support the activities of Sky Ocean Ventures, which seeks out investment opportunities in businesses that can help solve the ocean plastic crisis. There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable.

But instead of getting angry, let's get motivated - let's make 2018 the year we break free from plastic packaging like this!

The past few months in particular have shone a bright spotlight on the issues of plastic waste - especially plastic bottles - not only in our surroundings, but across the world's oceans in the form of microplastics.

The discovery could be a step toward eliminating the huge swaths of plastic waste often found floating in oceans or washed up on beaches all over the world, the researchers said.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. 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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