Plastic-eating enzyme could help fight pollution, scientists say

17 April, 2018, 20:19 | Author: Shannon Aguilar
  • Image underwater showing plastic wrappers

The scientists in just such a scenario comprise an global team that was working off of a 2016 discovery of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic.

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 US examined an enzyme produced by the Japanese bacteria to find out more about its structure.

But back in 2016, a team of Japanese scientists sifting through plastic waste found bacteria capable of breaking down and "eating" one of the world's most popular plasticspolyethylene terephthalate, or PET. PETase is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan, which allowed a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source.

The structure of the enzyme looked very similar to one evolved by many bacteria to break down cutin, a natural polymer used as a protective coating by plants.

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, which conducted the research, along with the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

"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. "In fact, it turned out that we improved the enzyme, which has now become a real boon in modern science".

Currently, recycled plastic is limited in its use as typically it is just re-used for other products such as clothing, but this breakthrough could allow for clear plastic bottles to be broken down and made once again into bottles.

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Once they understood its structure, the team noted that they could improve the performance of PETase by adjusting a few residues on its surface.

Its findings were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Another significant aspect of the research: the discovery that PETase can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics.

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.

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.

Researchers have created a chemical that can break plastic down in a matter of hours - compared to the hundreds of years it takes for it to decompose in the Nature.

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University. "There is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem by breaking down some of the most commonly used plastics".

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