Our plastic pollution crisis is only getting worse, but scientists may soon have a valuable new tool to chip away at the problem.
British researchers created the plastic-digesting protein accidentally while investigating its natural counterpart.
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. PETase is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan, which allowed a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source. During this study, they unintentionally engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that has already evolved.
John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom who co-led the work, said that the discovery was very exciting because it meant that "there's potential to optimise the enzyme even further".
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The mutant enzyme is on another level when it comes to the speed needed to break down a plastic bottle as tests show it can eliminate it in a matter of days, compared with nature which would take centuries. "In fact, it turned out that we improved the enzyme, which has now become a real boon in modern science".
Industrial enzymes are widely used in, for example, washing powders and biofuel production, They have been made to work up to 1,000 times faster in a few years, the same timescale McGeehan envisages for the plastic-eating enzyme.
"It's well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET, and potentially other [plastics], back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled", McGeehan said. The enzyme can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles.
While the invention of highly durable plastics has had positive impacts for humankind's quality of life, it's that very durability that is causing the plastics pollution problem.
Though the rise of plastics since the 1960s has led to tons of trash floating around the world's oceans, the discovery brings hope that plastic bottles will soon stop their accumulation in our water.
Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and they did it completely by accident.
The team behind the research at Portsmouth University includes PhD students and even undergraduates, and when I visited their lab their excitement was infectious.
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. But instead of the mutated PETase proving more ineffective at degrading PET, the team found the opposite, that it actually performed better.
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