Scientists Have Accidentally Created a Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic Waste

Scientists Have Accidentally Created a Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic Waste

The nature-based network will bring together its global network of scientists and academics to support the fund's vision and provide targeted funding to improve recycling and waste management so the volume of plastic pollution in the oceans can be measurably reduced.

However, while studying how the bug breaks down plastics, the researchers accidentally created a mutant enzyme that performs even better than the original bacteria. Hidden in the soil at a plastics recycling plant, researchers unearthed a microbe that had evolved to eat the soda bottles dominating its habitat, after you and I throw them away.

As they studied the structure of the natural enzyme, the scientists realized they'd accidentally engineered a new enzyme that was even better at breaking down plastic than the one they'd been studying.

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.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to quickly break down plastics.

The corporations flooding the market with single-use plastics need to do better.

The researchers´ goal was to understand how one of its enzymes - called PETase - worked, by figuring out its structure.

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The paper, "Characterization and engineering of a plastic-degrading aromatic polyesterase", will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). What interested the scientists was the evolution of the enzyme, given that PET plastics have only existed in the environment since the 1940s. Although it is said to be recyclable, discarded PET can last for centuries before it degrades.

The researchers worked with scientists at Diamond Light Source (DLS) in the United Kingdom, deploying a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.

Other types of plastic could be broken down by bacteria currently evolving in the environment, McGeehan said: "People are now searching vigorously for those".

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.

"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", said Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth.

Oliver Jones, a chemist from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, tells The Guardian, "Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms".

He also said, "There is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem by breaking down some of the most commonly used plastics".

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