Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastics Discovered by Accident

Chris Packham has called on the public to take the matter of plastic pollution into their own hands

With a little luck, researchers have happened upon an engineered enzyme with an appetite for some of the most commonly disposed of types of plastic, meaning this waste could conceivably be broken down relatively quickly rather than contaminating the environment for hundreds of years.

The researchers made the breakthrough when they were examining the structure of a natural enzyme which is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan, allowing a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source.

While the mutant PETase is so far only about 20 percent more efficient at breaking down plastic than the naturally occurring enzyme, the team says the important thing is we now know these enzymes can be optimised and augmented.

The global team, led by Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, UK, tested the evolutionary process of the enzyme, inadvertently discovering that they had improved the capabilities of the enzyme in breaking down PET bottles.

However, while studying how the bug breaks down plastics, the researchers accidentally created a mutant enzyme that performs even better than the original bacteria. (Let that sink in for just a second.) We recycle a measly 14 percent of that, much of the rest ending up in the ocean, which is slowly becoming a giant pot of animal-killing plastic soup. 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".

Using a super-powerful X-ray, 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, they were able to make an ultra-high-resolution three-dimensional model of the enzyme. "It's great and a real finding".

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Japanese officials said Kono and Wang agreed on the importance of maintaining the world's system of free trade. He last visited Japan in August 2016 for a trilateral meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.

The new chemical is based on the discovery in 2016 of a new species bacteria species that has evolved to feed exclusively on plastic. Although it is said to be recyclable, discarded PET can last for centuries before it degrades.

Stefan Venter, UPIX Photography John McGeehan and colleagues inadvertently engineered an enzyme better at degrading plastic than the enzyme which evolved in nature. The Portsmouth University team, and their collaborators, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, have since filed for a patent.

It could help solve a lot of recycling problems.

.

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", he said.

Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, agreed the enzyme could be useful but added: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions".

"Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world", said Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth. No other reproduction or distribution is permitted without prior written consent.

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