Plastic-eating enzyme 'could help fight pollution'

Plastic-eating enzyme 'could help fight pollution'

With the hope of developing a solution to the world's chronic plastic pollution problem, British and American researchers chose to study the enzyme that the bacteria were using to digest this ubiquitous substance-and now they've made a stunning discovery.

These mutant enzymes with a taste for waste could lead to the full recycling of single-use bottles.

They and Gregg Beckham are among the global team of researchers who are working to further improve the enzyme to allow it to be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception, "says structural biologist John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth in the UK".

However, while studying how the bug breaks down plastics, the researchers accidentally created a mutant enzyme that performs even better than the original bacteria. The bad news: it doesn't work fast enough to solve plastic recycling at the industrial scale. 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".

The past few months in particular have shone a bright spotlight on the issues of plastic waste - especially plastic bottles - not only in our surroundings, but across the world's oceans in the form of microplastics.

Researchers from the United States and Britain accidentally engineered an enzyme that eats plastic. "The generated mutants will help to save the planet from plastic pollution", said John Mackichan.

The findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Coca-Cola, for example, which produces more than 100 billion plastic bottles a year, according to Greenpeace, has promised to increase the recycled content of its bottles 50 percent by 2020.

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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 research team also included scientists from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

They found the first ones in Japan.

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

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".

Douglas Kell, a professor of bio-analytical science at Manchester University, said further rounds of work "should be expected to improve the enzyme yet further". "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".

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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