Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles

Image of piles of plastic waste

Image of piles of plastic waste

Researchers from Britain's University of Portsmouth and the US 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.

Researchers in the USA and Britain have accidentally engineered an enzyme which eats plastic and may eventually help solve the growing problem of plastic pollution, a study said Monday.

Known as Ideonella sakaiensis, it appears to feed exclusively on a type of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used widely in plastic bottles.

In collaboration with scientists at the Diamond Light Source in the UK, Professor McGeehan and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL used a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.

To test that hypothesis, the researchers mutated the PETase active site to make it more like a cutinase and they found that the PETase mutant was better than the natural PETase in degrading PET. But when the team manipulated the enzyme to explore this connection, they accidentally improved its ability to eat PET.

"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, a Melbourne University chemistry expert.

"To further support the work of the CCOA, £16.4 million will be used to improve waste management at a national and a city level", the government said. "[But] this is certainly a step in a positive direction".

The alliance will work with NGOs and business to share expertise, including the World Economic Forum, Fauna and Flora International, Coca-Cola and Sky, which has been campaigning around the plastics issue through its Sky Ocean Rescue project. The new enzyme indicates a way to recycle clear plastic bottles back into clear plastic bottles, which could slash the need to produce new plastic.

Last month, the government announced plans to press ahead with a bottle deposit return scheme (DRS) in the United Kingdom, as part of its plans to reduce domestic plastic pollution.

The impact of such an innovative solution to plastic waste would be global.

The ministry has notified the Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2018, which specifies phasing out of those multi-layered plastics (MLPs) that are "non-recyclable, non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use", an official statement said. And according to the Earth Institute at Columbia University, only 9.5 percent of plastic is recycled and there are already 165 million tons of plastic debris in our oceans. Tapping into the cold-brew coffee trend, which is tipped to be even bigger this year, is France-based cold concentrations expert Ederna.

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