Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Economy | By

Scientists engineer plastic-eating enzyme - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Scientists engineer plastic-eating enzyme - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

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. The team's plan was to tweak the enzyme to see how it evolved, but it seems that their efforts at trying to better understand the enzyme inadvertently resulted in creating a more effective enzyme.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme so it can be used to break down plastics in an industrial setting. But when the team manipulated the enzyme to explore this connection, they accidentally improved its ability to eat PET.

As the researchers were using the 3D information of this stucture to understand how it works, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

Structural biologist John McGeehan University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom said, "Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception".

AN ENZYME that gobbles up plastic could be the answer to the world's recycling headache, say British scientists.

The research team can now apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it. Through this method they wound up with a ultra-high resolution 3D model of PETase.

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic - far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans.


Using the PETase blueprint provided by the Diamond Light Sources, the scientists re-engineered an active region of the molecule. "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".

The cash will be used for grants, innovation challenges and events to raise the profile of the plastic problem and fund the development of alternative materials and new, zero-waste manufacturing processes.

"Devoting UK global 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".

These differences indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET. To test this theory, the researchers mutated the PETase and that was when the unexpected happened.

The engineered enzyme has the added benefit of being able to degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a PET alternative that has been floated as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

Although said to be highly recyclable, PET persists for hundreds of years.

The research was funded by the University of Portsmouth, NREL and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

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