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

Image of piles of plastic waste

Image of piles of plastic waste

All the oceans over the world get dumped with plastic in amount as more as eight million tons every year, since the scientists are continuously struggling to find out the new ways to mount over the toxic legacy of such types of products derived from petroleum on the planet's environment as well as human health.

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.

The worldwide 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.

About 1m plastic bottles are sold each minute around the globe and, with just 14% recycled, many end up in the oceans where they have polluted even the remotest parts, harming marine life and potentially people who eat seafood.

In collaboration with scientists at the Diamond Light Source in the UK, Professor McGeehan and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL used a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.

The creation of the enzyme occurred by chance when the team, led by Professor John Makhijani from the University of Portsmouth, forged bacterium, discovered in a landfill in Japan.

"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. These differences indicated that PETase must have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.

The mutant enzyme only takes days to begin breaking down plastics, a lot faster than the centuries it takes plastics to decay in the ocean. To test their theory they then mutated the PETease to make it look even more like a cutinase.

The researchers´ goal was to understand how one of its enzymes - called PETase - worked, by figuring out its structure.

Some companies that rely on PET have committed to do more.

Scientists have made some promising discoveries when it comes to putting living organisms to work on this dilemma, with wax worms and bacteria a couple of recent examples.

In addition to digesting PET, the new enzyme was also capable of degrading polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based form of plastic being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles. "Few could have predicted that in the space of 50 years, single-use plastics such as drink bottles would be found washed up on beaches across the globe", said McGeehan.

The work reported in PNAS was enabled by funding from NREL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program, the University of Portsmouth, and the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

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