Researchers Accidentally Create Superior Plastic-Degrading Enzyme

Image of piles of plastic waste

Scientists have engineered a mutant enzyme that can eat and digest hard-to-recycle plastics - and they created it entirely by accident. Now, they've unlocked the structure of a critical enzyme that it produces.

And since enzymes are non-toxic and biodegradable, the discovery could be a major breakthrough in sustainably recycling the millions of tons of plastic that are polluting the planet.

"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 Dr. John McGeehan, who co-led the research. "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment", McGeehan was quoted as saying.

Currently, the recycling process enables plastic bottles to be turned into opaque fibers not suitable to reuse for the production of new plastic bottles.

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To begin experiments, the research team wanted to find out exactly how effective PETase was at digesting PET. NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe and postdoctoral researcher Nic Rorrer tested PETase by taking samples of PET from the soda bottles in Beckham's office and ran an experiment with PETase.

They found that their PETase mutant was better than the wild-type PETase in degrading polyethylene terephthalate, patented as a plastic in the 1940s. "We'd actually have proper recycling", McGeehan told BBC News.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to quickly break down plastics.

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

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Using a synchrotron particle accelerator, the researchers, in collaboration with Diamond Light Source in the United Kingdom, used intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to view the individual atoms making up PETase. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not.

"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan.

The U.S. Department of Energy partnered with the University of Portsmouth on the discovery. But bacteria are far easier to harness for industrial uses. Plastic pollution is fast becoming one of the biggest environmental issues of our time.

While the invention of highly durable plastics has had positive impacts for humankind's quality of life, it's that very durability that is causing the plastics pollution problem. And obviously, reducing the production and use of single-use plastics in the first place can't be emphasized enough. PET has only been widely used since the 1970s, so the bacterium had evolved at breakneck speed to use the new food source.

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