Plastic-eating enzyme could help solve the world's pollution problem

Apr 18, 2018, 00:35
Plastic-eating enzyme could help solve the world's pollution problem

And yet, by adding amino acids to the structure of the enzyme discovered in Japan, researchers have been able to observe an unexpected change in its behavior.

"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", McGeehan noted, according to the University of Portsmouth press release. PET plastics can persist for hundreds of years in the environment and now pollute large areas of land and sea worldwide.

The enzyme takes a few days to begin breaking down the plastic, and researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.

Millions of tons of PET bottles are made each year and many of them are tossed aside as litter. It's a global environmental problem that poses a serious risk to wildlife, particularly in marine environments. Together, such solutions deal with the consumer demand for plastic, and the outcome of plastic ending up in the ocean, but all fail to actually recycle a plastic bottle into a new plastic bottle, thereby reducing the consumer demand for oil.

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Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 was found to use a specially evolved enzyme, now known as PETase, to transfer to carbon for energy. After all, PET, patented as a plastic in the 1940s, has not existed in nature for very long.

Scientists say they are now working to improve the enzyme so that it works on a large scale. Using their beamline I23, an ultra-high-resolution 3D model of the PETase enzyme was generated in exquisite detail. Scientists from the University of Campinas in Brazil and the University of South Florida contributed.

And this is where the unexpected happened. "Given these results, it's clear that significant potential remains for improving its activity further". The discovery could be used to recycle plastic bottles down to their original materials, which would be a total game changer in fighting the plastic epidemic that's plaguing our oceans and environment.

McGeehan's team reportedly tweaked the PETase to better understand its structure. "It is literally drilling holes through the PEF sample".

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A Japanese waste dump is an unlikely location for what may be a huge breakthrough in the plastics pollution crisis. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle". PET that is recycled often exhibits inferior material properties as well. But while manipulating the enzyme, the worldwide team inadvertently improved its ability to devour plastic. McGeehan is director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at University of Portsmouth.

The discovery came as a team of scientists from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the USA examined an enzyme produced by the Japanese bacteria to find out more about its structure.

This animation shows a 360-degree rotation of the crystal structure of PETase (in green) with a docked PET polymer (in yellow) bound to the active site.

An accidental finding led to the creation of a mutant bacteria that breaks down plastic, the Guardian reports.

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