Wednesday, 26 September, 2018

Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic waste

David Jones David Jones
Kenneth Drake | 17 April, 2018, 20:19

British researchers of the world have declared that have created a global problem with recycling plastic is that every year more and more pollute the planet.

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.

"Other types of plastic could be broken down by bacteria currently evolving in the environment, McGeehan said: "People are now searching vigorously for those".

Prof John McGeehan at Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at the NREL initially solved the crystal structure of a recently-discovered natural enzyme that digests PET known as "PETase". This natural enzyme is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan to allow a bacterium degrade plastic as a food source.

Working with U.S. colleagues, the Portsmouth scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire.

"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".


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.

Not that PETase is a slouch - as PET by itself takes centuries to naturally break down, and the enzyme enables the bacteria to shorten that to just a matter of days.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, are now working to further improve the enzyme so it can be used on an industrial scale. This comes in the form of a "mutant" enzyme that has the ability to eat plastic bottles. To test that hypothesis, the researchers mutated the PETase active site to make it more like a cutinase.

Once they understood its structure, the team noted that they could improve the performance of PETase by adjusting a few residues on its surface. "This shows that by using PETase, PEF is even more biodegradable than PET".

Increasing the volume of plastic that is recycled could significantly cut the amount that finds its way into the sea, which now stands at about a truck load every single minute worldwide. 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. The Portsmouth University team, and their collaborators, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, have since filed for a patent.

"I think [the new research] is very exciting work, showing there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem", said Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and not part of the research team.

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