Researchers accidentally create plastic-eating enzyme

Image of piles of plastic waste

GETTY ABDUL RAHEEM MOHAMED EYEEMPlastic waste is becoming a huge issue and needs to be addressed

"We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these "wonder materials", must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions", explained one of the researchers, John McGeehan, in an April 16 news release.

The new research sprang from the discovery of bacteria in a Japanese waste recycling centre that had evolved the ability to feed on plastic with a natural enzyme called PETase.

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.

The worldwide 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.

The enzyme digests the element polyethylene terephthalate, used in plastic bottles.

"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. 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". 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.

According to Innova Market Insights data, 58 percent of globally launched food and beverage products are packaged in plastic, a 5 percent increase from 2013, while 96 percent of all newly launched water products in 2017 are packaged in PET bottles.

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Another significant aspect of the research: the discovery that PETase can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, or PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics. PET plastics can persist for hundreds of years in the environment and now pollute large areas of land and sea worldwide.

The findings are reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link down at time of writing).

So they mutated the PETase active site to make it more like cutinase, and unexpectedly found that this mutant enzyme was even better than the natural PETase at breaking down PET. The U.S. and United Kingdom results were published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal and then announced in a Portsmouth University news release. But bacteria are far easier to harness for industrial uses.

They found the first ones in Japan. A type of bacteria evolved to live off plastic in the last few decades.

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.

Oliver Jones, a chemist from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, tells The Guardian, "Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms".

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