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Fortuitously Produced Enzyme Eats Plastic Helping Combat Plastic Pollution

Fortuitously Produced Enzyme Eats Plastic Helping Combat Plastic Pollution

In the search for scientific solutions to the plastic pollution crisis, momentum like this is vital.

The mutated version digests some of the most commonly polluting plastics, including those made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, faster than the original enzyme.

Tests showed that the lab-made mutant enzyme had a supercharged ability to break down PET, one of the most popular forms of plastic used by the food and drinks industry.

PET is relatively easy to recycle, but over half of global PET waste is not collected for recycling, according to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and only 7 percent of bottles are recycled into new bottles (most go into lower-value products). During this study, they unintentionally engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that has already evolved.

The team will now work to improve the enzyme even further with Professor McGeehan confident that we could finally have a viable recycling solution for these plastics within just a few years.

"This unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics".

At the moment, plastic cannot be broken down into its constituent parts - meaning that recycling involves melting the material for reuse.

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). The enzyme can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

PET now lasts for hundreds of years in the environment and this accidental discovery could provide a viable recycling solution for millions of tonnes of bottles and packaging.

They began by using a synchrotron at the Diamond Light Source facility in the United Kingdom, which allows them to see individual atoms inside the structure of the enzyme by blasting them with beams of X-ray light 10 billion times brighter than the sun.

It could help solve a lot of recycling problems.

.

With the new enzyme, however, the idea is it that it can be put to use to turn old plastic into new plastic.

Though the rise of plastics since the 1960s has led to tons of trash floating around the world's oceans, the discovery brings hope that plastic bottles will soon stop their accumulation in our water. Scientists claim to have created mutants that eat plastic bottles.

"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", said Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and not part of the research team.

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


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