Scientists accidentally create plastic-eating mutant enzyme

Scientists accidentally engineer a plastic-eating enzyme

We may have a new weapon in our fight against the rising tide of plastic pollution - and it was discovered by accident.

Now however, The Guardian is reporting that the discovery of an enzyme in a Japanese dump in 2016 has now reaped dividends enormously thanks to an accidental breakthrough made by a team of scientists from the University of Portsmouth, UK.

"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 USA journal. PETase is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan, which allowed a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source.

So they mutated the PETase active site to make it more like cutinase, and unexpectedly found that this mutant enzyme was even better than the natural PETase at breaking down PET.

However, researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory say they may have serendipitously discovered an enzyme that can eat PET plastic.

While the mutant PETase is so far only about 20 percent more efficient at breaking down plastic than the naturally occurring enzyme, the team says the important thing is we now know these enzymes can be optimised and augmented. "In fact, it turned out that we improved the enzyme, which has now become a real boon in modern science".

Bottles made from PET are used to package 70% of soft drinks, fruit juices and mineral waters, according to the British Plastics Federation.

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The research team can now apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it. PET plastics, which were first patented in the 1940s, can linger in the environment for centuries.

A high definition 3D model of the enzyme was created, using the powerful x-ray beamline at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire.

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

While the invention of highly durable plastics has had positive impacts for humankind's quality of life, it's that very durability that is causing the plastics pollution problem.

The team behind the research at Portsmouth University includes PhD students and even undergraduates, and when I visited their lab their excitement was infectious. 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.

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, an expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University.

Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, agreed the enzyme could be useful but added: "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".

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