Scientists have engineered an enzyme which can digest some of our most commonly polluting plastics, providing a potential solution to one of the world's biggest environmental problems.
The global team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles.
British researchers created the plastic-digesting protein accidentally while investigating its natural counterpart.
PET, patented as a plastic in the 1940s, has not existed in nature for very long, so the team set out to determine how the enzyme evolved and if it might be possible to improve it.
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The researchers were initially inspired by the discovery of a bacterium in 2016 in Japan that had naturally evolved to eat plastic found at waste dumps.
Finding the enzyme was helping a bacteria to break down, or digest, PET plastic, the researchers made a decision to "tweak" its structure by adding amino acids, said John McGeehan, a professor at Portsmouth who co-led the work.
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".
"The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels", said McGeehan. 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. This suggests there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics'.
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The impact of such an innovative solution to plastic waste would be global.
Then, with help of computational modelling and scientists at the University of South Florida and the University of Campinas in Brazil, the team discovered PETase may have evolved in a PET-heavy environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.
"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 McGeehan.
Also, the phasing out of Multi-layered Plastic (MLP) is now applicable to MLP, which are "non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use".
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"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.