Can this plastic-eating enzyme devour our PET pollution problem?

17 April, 2018, 20:19 | Author: Salvatore Jensen
  • Image of piles of plastic waste

The discovery was made while examining the structure of a natural enzyme believed to have come of age in a Japanese recycling center.

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).

While analysing the molecular structure of an existing enzyme, scientists accidentally create a powerful new version.

"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". Little of this is recycled, which means we are polluting our environment with materials that take centuries to degrade, much of which washes out into the ocean where it breaks into tiny pieces that are almost impossible to track, let alone clean up.

"And now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it".

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

Not that PETase is a slouch - as PET by itself takes centuries to naturally break down, and the enzyme enables the bacteria to shorten that to just a matter of days. But if that hunger happens to be for the plastic used to make single-use bottles - something that doesn't generally degrade in nature and is basically the scourge of modern humanity - I'd say break out the champagne and cigars.




In addition to digesting PET, the new enzyme was also capable of degrading polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based form of plastic being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

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

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

National Geographic will commit $10 million (£7m) and bring its scientific expertise, grants and media to support the activities of Sky Ocean Ventures, which seeks out investment opportunities in businesses that can help solve the ocean plastic crisis.

Prof Adisa Azapagic, at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, agreed the enzyme could be useful but added: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions".

"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock".

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