Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Money | By Michele Stevens

Scientists Create Enzyme That Eats Plastic Bottles

Scientists Create Enzyme That Eats Plastic Bottles

With the hope of developing a solution to the world's chronic plastic pollution problem, British and American researchers chose to study the enzyme that the bacteria were using to digest this ubiquitous substance-and now they've made a stunning discovery. Hidden in the soil at a plastics recycling plant, researchers unearthed a microbe that had evolved to eat the soda bottles dominating its habitat, after you and I throw them away.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme further to allow it to be used industrially to quickly break down plastics.

Lead scientist Professor John McGeehan, from the University of Portsmouth, said: "Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research, and our discovery here is no exception".

Known as Ideonella sakaiensis, it appears to feed exclusively on a type of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used widely in plastic bottles. But I believe there is a public driver here: "perception is changing so much that companies are starting to look at how they can properly recycle these".

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Working with the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire. What interested the scientists was the evolution of the enzyme, given that PET plastics have only existed in the environment since the 1940s. "It's great and a real finding".

Scientists have made some promising discoveries when it comes to putting living organisms to work on this dilemma, with wax worms and bacteria a couple of recent examples.

Researchers in the U.S. 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. PET can last hundreds of years in a natural environment.

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). But bacteria are far easier to harness for industrial uses.

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Researchers reported in 2016 that they had found the strain living in sediments at a bottle recycling site in the port city of Sakai.

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

Increasing the volume of plastic that is recycled could significantly cut the amount that finds its way into the sea, which now stands at about a truck load every single minute worldwide.

Professor Adisa Azapagic of the University of Manchester, UK, likewise agreed that the enzyme could prove useful, but stated concern that it could lead to other forms of pollution: "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".

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