Scientists accidentally engineer a plastic-eating enzyme

17 April, 2018, 20:16 | Author: Martin Tyler
  • A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced

With around one million plastic bottles sold around the world every minute, only 14% of these are recycled and much of the rest ends up in the oceans and waterways damaging marine life and potentially affecting humans who consume seafood.

These mutant enzymes with a taste for waste could lead to the full recycling of single-use bottles.

As for when we can expect to see industrial degradation processes developed using this enzyme, in order to make plastics more recyclable, that depends on how well the researchers can improve its performance through engineering.

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception, "says structural biologist John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth in the UK".

The global team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles. But I believe there is a public driver here: "perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these". This ultra-powerful microscope is able to fire intense X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, giving the scientists the ability to examine the 3D atomic structure of the enzyme.

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According to Innova Market Insights data, 58 percent of globally launched food and beverage products are packaged in plastic, a 5 percent increase from 2013, while 96 percent of all newly launched water products in 2017 are packaged in PET bottles.

The bugs used a natural enzyme called PETase to digest PET bottles and containers.

An worldwide team of researchers may have accidentally engineered an enzyme that could help mitigate the global plastic pollution crisis.

The team set out to determine how the enzyme evolved and if it might be possible to improve it.

Its findings were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. However, their experiment only strengthened the molecule, making it more useful in tearing down the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic commonly used in making soft drink bottles.

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Researchers reported in 2016 that they had found the strain living in sediments at a bottle recycling site in the port city of Sakai.

Scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department´s National Renewable Energy Laboratory made a decision to focus on a naturally occurring bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago. A type of bacteria evolved to live off plastic in the last few decades.

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University.

It could help solve a lot of recycling problems.

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