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Researchers accidentally create plastic-eating enzyme

Researchers accidentally create plastic-eating enzyme

The new research was spurred by the discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan.

Prof. John McGeehan, an X-ray crystallographer at the University of Portsmouth, stands next to equipment at the Diamond Light Source, the United Kingdom national synchrotron, that he used to reveal the atomic structure of an enzyme his team has engineered to digest a common form of plastic.

The researchers set out to better understand the crystalline structure of PETase, which is believed to have come of age in a Japanese recycling center.

Stefan Venter, UPIX Photography John McGeehan and colleagues inadvertently engineered an enzyme better at degrading plastic than the enzyme which evolved in nature.

Researchers say they are now working on further improvements to the enzyme, with the hope of eventually scaling it up for industrial use in breaking down plastics.

"[PET] has only been around in vast quantities over the last 50 years, so it's actually not a very long timescale for a bacteria to have evolved to eat something so man-made", commented Prof John McGeehan, who was involved in the current study. So, the researchers improved the structure of bacteria by adding amino acids. The Portsmouth University team, and their collaborators, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, have since filed for a patent.

Salah, De Bruyne, Silva, Sane and De Gea nominated for PFA
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The discovery could lead to a recycling solution for the millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which will persist for hundreds of years in the environment.

"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. 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.

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 Melbourne University chemistry expert said, "Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms".

Professor Adisa Azapagic of the University of Manchester, UK, likewise agreed that the enzyme could prove useful, but stated concern that it could lead to other forms of pollution: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions".

The organisations will also host a series of events to engage industry leaders, corporations, institutions and foundations focused on the issue of marine plastic pollution. The newly discovered enzyme promises to recycle plastic bottles back into new clear plastic bottles, which would require much less virgin plastic.


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