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Enzyme which can digest most commonly polluting plastics discovered

17 April 2018

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. A patent has been filed on the specific mutant enzyme by the Portsmouth researchers and those from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

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.

The battle against plastic pollution has taken an unexpected turn as an global scientist team develops an enzyme which naturally digests PET as its main energy source.

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Finding the enzyme was helping a bacteria to break down, or digest, PET plastic, the researchers made a decision to "tweak" its structure by adding amino acids, said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work.

Professor McGeehan, Director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences said: "Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world".

"But they ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics", said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed United States journal.

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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". During testing, the team unexpectedly improved the enzymes plastic-digesting abilities. "This unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics". "What actually happened was that we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock", said John McGeehan.

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. But, more significantly, it can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF) - a bio-based substitute for PET plastics being hailed as a replacement for glass bottles. To test that hypothesis, the researchers mutated the PETase active site to make it more like a cutinase.

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

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Enzyme which can digest most commonly polluting plastics discovered