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Worldwide team engineers plastic digesting enzyme

17 April 2018

More than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans every year, and concern is mounting over this petroleum-derived product's toxic legacy on human health and the environment.

While working to solve the crystal structure of PETase-a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET-the team inadvertently engineered an enzyme to be even better at degrading the man-made substance. However, their experiment only strengthened the molecule, making it more useful in tearing down the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic commonly used in making soft drink bottles.

The researchers set out to better understand the crystalline structure of PETase, which is believed to have come of age in a Japanese recycling center.

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

Researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory made the discovery while examining the structure of a natural enzyme thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan.

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"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", said Prof John McGeehan.

For instance, the tweaked PETase is also able to break down a PET substitute called PEF (polyethylene furandicarboxylate), which the natural PETase can't process.

The research team can now apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it.

This suggested that PETase had evolved in an environment with PET present, so the researchers mutated the PETase active site to behave more like cutinase, in search of more evidence of this theory.

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.

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Some companies that rely on PET have committed to do more. "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". This comes in the form of a "mutant" enzyme that has the ability to eat plastic bottles.

Prof McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: "Few could have predicted that since plastics became popular in the 1960s huge plastic waste patches would be found floating in oceans, or washed up on once pristine beaches all over the world". Scientists claim to have created mutants that eat plastic bottles.

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

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".

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Worldwide team engineers plastic digesting enzyme