Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Markets | By Noel Gibbs

Fortuitously Produced Enzyme Eats Plastic Helping Combat Plastic Pollution

Fortuitously Produced Enzyme Eats Plastic Helping Combat Plastic Pollution

The researchers were initially inspired by the discovery of a bacterium in 2016 in Japan that had naturally evolved to eat plastic found at waste dumps.

The researchers are now working with the tools of protein engineering and evolution to improve the enzyme in order to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

The PM said: "This week we will look closely at how we can tackle the many threats to the health of the world's oceans, including the scourge of marine plastic pollution". "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".

"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock", said Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who led the research. The team used the Diamond Light Source, near Oxford, UK, an intense beam of X-rays that is 10bn times brighter than the sun and can reveal individual atoms.

Scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory made a decision to focus on a naturally occurring bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago.

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Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at the United States Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) solved the crystal structure of PETase, a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET.

"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", said McGeehan.

"I am delighted to be part of an global team that is tackling one of the biggest problems facing our planet".

Professor Andrew Harrison, chief executive of the Diamond Light Source, said: "With input from five institutions in three different countries, this research is a fine example of how global collaboration can help make significant scientific breakthroughs".

The Environment Ministry has notified the amended rules on plastic waste management that prescribe a central system for the registration of producers and importers.

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"Devoting UK worldwide development money to help poor communities clean up and better manage their waste isn't just good for nature, it's good for people too".

Key to the breakthrough were observations that, at this high resolution, PETase appears very similar to the enzyme cutinase, but with a few notable differences. But instead of the mutated PETase proving more ineffective at degrading PET, the team found the opposite, that it actually performed better. But, more significantly, it can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF) - a bio-based substitute for PET plastics being hailed as a replacement for glass bottles.

The paper's lead author is postgraduate student, jointly funded by the University of Portsmouth and NREL, Harry Austin.

We produce hundreds of millions of tons of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic each year for use in things like soda and shampoo bottles.

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