Scientists accidentally engineer plastic-eating enzyme

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Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said: "I think [the new research] is very exciting work, showing there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem".

Researchers of the United States and Britain have accidentally engineered an enzyme that can digest plastics.

Corporations and retailers are wrapping everything from avocados to t-shirts in throwaway plastic packaging that eventually finds its way into our oceans, all in the name of “convenience.” Whats worse, we know that more than 90% of the plastics ever created have not been recycled; theres simply too much plastic for us to recycle away the problem.

However, most of the plastic may be persistent in the environment for hundreds of years, so that the researchers are probing the better solutions to reduce it or its negative influence.

Lead scientist prof John McGeehan, from Portsmouth university, said: 'Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research, and our discovery is no exception.

The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic and experts have said that they're confident the process can be accelerated even further into a large scale process.

In collaboration with scientists at the Diamond Light Source in the UK, Professor McGeehan and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL used a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms. "What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimized to degrade PET-and now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it".

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So an industrial process that could make the stuff easier to recycle would be most welcome.

The finding was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

'What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic, ' Prof John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, told The Guardian. UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, also recently confirmed plans to launch a public tax consultation on single-use plastics. Using their beamline I23, an ultra-high-resolution 3D model of the PETase enzyme was generated in exquisite detail. During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature. "Surprisingly, we found that the PETase mutant outperforms the wild-type PETase in degrading PET", said Rorrer.

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.

"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.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.