Researchers accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic

A £61.4 million package to find new ways of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste is expected to be announced

AN ENZYME that gobbles up plastic could be the answer to the world's recycling headache, say British scientists. PETase is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan, which allowed a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source.

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

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception", said Professor John McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Portsmouth University.

"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. What's worse, we know that more than 90% of the plastics ever created have not been recycled - there's simply too much plastic for us to recycle away the problem. But I believe there is a public driver here: "perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these".

Working with USA colleagues, the Portsmouth scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire.

One possible improvement being explored is to transplant the mutant enzyme into an "extremophile bacteria" that can survive temperatures above the 70C melting point of PET - the plastic is likely to degrade 10-100 times faster when molten.

The bugs used a natural enzyme called PETase to digest PET bottles and containers. PET plastics can persist for hundreds of years in the environment and now pollute large areas of land and sea worldwide. "We hoped to determine its structure to aid in protein engineering, but we ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme with improved performance at breaking down these plastics".

The findings of the team were published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

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

Researchers reported in 2016 that they had found the strain living in sediments at a bottle recycling site in the port city of Sakai.

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

"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock", said lead researcher John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.

Increasing the volume of plastic that is recycled could significantly cut the amount that finds its way into the sea, which now stands at about a truck load every single minute worldwide.

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