Mutant enzyme breaks down PET at super-speed

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

The worldwide team involved in researching how the bacterium developed, exactly, did so by messing with the enzyme it uses to break down PET (the polymer used in plastic bottles) and in so doing created a mutated version that breaks down plastic even more efficiently. "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".

Imagine if the solution to the global plastic epidemic was created in a laboratory by complete and utter happenstance.

"Luck is often an important part of basic scientific research, and our discovery is no exception", said John McGeehan, a professor at the School of Biological Sciences in Portsmouth, "Although the breakthrough is modest, this unexpected discovery suggests that there is room for further improvement of these enzymes, to bring us even closer to a recycling solution for this ever-growing body of plastic that no one seems to consider as important", he added.

"What we really need are system changes to reduce the volume of throwaway plastic packaging and make sure plastic drinks bottles are collected and separated effectively", said Edge.

With the new enzyme, however, the idea is it that it can be put to use to turn old plastic into new plastic. Each year, more than eight million tons of plastics are found in different oceans of the planet.

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Japan has had two North Korean missiles fly over the country's north in the past 12 months, it doesn't have a seat at the table. In other words, it "has the potential to supply these materials on a semi-infinite basis to the world", the study said.


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When left alone, PET takes centuries to break down, but the plastic-eating microbes could be the key to ridding it from the environment in a quick and safe way. However, the researchers are still working on further modifying the PETase mutant so that it can break down plastics at an ever faster rate, according to the University of Portsmouth. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not. The team used the Diamond Light Source, near Oxford, UK, an intense beam of X-rays that is 10bn times brighter than the sun and can reveal individual atoms. But when the team manipulated the enzyme to explore this connection, they accidentally improved its ability to eat PET.

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. "We were thrilled to learn that PETase works even better on PEF than on PET", said Beckham.

Now back to the horror film premise of unleashing mutants into the environment. one can't help but ask, isn't there potential for things to run amok?

These mutant enzymes with a taste for waste could lead to the full recycling of single-use bottles. "There is still a way to go before you could recycle large amounts of plastic with enzymes, and reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place might, perhaps, be preferable".

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