Plastic-eating enzyme can help fight pollution: scientists

Randal Sanchez
April 17, 2018

Scientists have improved a naturally occurring enzyme which can digest some of our most commonly polluting plastics.

An worldwide team of researchers may have accidentally engineered an enzyme that could help mitigate the global plastic pollution crisis.

While analysing the molecular structure of an existing enzyme, scientists accidentally create a powerful new version.

Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that is able to recycle plastic bottles.

"To find an enzyme that breaks plastic down so quickly is really exciting", said University of Portsmouth professor John McGeehan. The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme so it can be used to break down plastics in an industrial setting.

"The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels - the technology exists and it's well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET and potentially other substrates like PEF, PLA, and PBS, back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled", says McGeehan. They believe it could offer a viable long-term and large-scale solution to global plastic pollution by supporting a circular recycling model in which plastics are broken-down and reused at end-of-life. "It is incredibly resistant to degradation".

However, now even those bottles that are recycled can only be turned into opaque fibres for clothing or carpets.

"You are always up against the fact that oil is cheap, so virgin PET is cheap", he continues. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not.

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

When the team began to alter it, it found an improvement in its ability to eat PET by 20pc. "We were thrilled to learn that PETase works even better on PEF than on PET", said Beckham. "It's incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimised".

"The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels ― the technology exists", said McGeehan.

The research team also included scientists from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

While they didn't expect it, this adjustment ended up showing the enzyme could still be further optimised in terms of breaking down plastics.

Polythylene terephthalate or PET is one of the worst man-made plastics for recycling taking hundreds of years to break down into the environment.

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.

"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.

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