Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastics Discovered by Accident

Scientists engineer plastics-eating enzyme

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.

The initial goal of the British-American team was to understand how the PETase enzyme works, by discovering its structure.

According to the scientists, the new enzyme called ideonellasakaiensis 201-F6 could become a solution to the problem of plastic pollution worldwide.

"What we really need are system changes to reduce the volume of throwaway plastic packaging and make sure plastic drinks bottles are collected and separated effectively", said Edge.

Currently, the recycling process enables plastic bottles to be turned into opaque fibers not suitable to reuse for the production of new plastic bottles.

About 1m plastic bottles are sold each minute around the globe and, with just 14% recycled, many end up in the oceans where they have polluted even the remotest parts, harming marine life and potentially people who eat seafood.

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The mutant enzyme only takes days to begin breaking down plastics, a lot faster than the centuries it takes plastics to decay in the ocean. "An enzyme alone can't clean up the complex and widespread legacy of plastic pollution that we have already created".

When the team tweaked the structure of the enzyme by adding some amino acids, tests showed that it made the molecule even better at breaking down PET plastic. By shining intense beams of X-rays on it, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, they were able to see individual atoms. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not.

"It is a modest improvement - 20% better - but that is not the point", McGeehan told The Guardian. But while manipulating the enzyme, the global team inadvertently improved its ability to devour plastic.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Britain's University of Portsmouth made the discovery while studying a microbe that could degrade plastic bottles, CNN reported. But bacteria are far easier to harness for industrial uses. PET sinks in seawater but some scientists have conjectured that plastic-eating bugs might one day be sprayed on the huge plastic garbage patches in the oceans to clean them up.

"It does only focus on one type of plastic". "The enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large quantities by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a chemistry expert at the University of Melbourne. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction". These differences indicated that PETase must have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET. And obviously, reducing the production and use of single-use plastics in the first place can't be emphasized enough.

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