Scientists accidentally discover mutant enzyme which digests plastic

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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.

Prof. John McGeehan, an X-ray crystallographer at the University of Portsmouth, stands next to equipment at the Diamond Light Source, the United Kingdom national synchrotron, that he used to reveal the atomic structure of an enzyme his team has engineered to digest a common form of plastic.

University of Portsmouth biologist Professor John McGeehan and his colleagues were attempting to verify the claim when they "accidentally created a super-powered version of the plastic-eating enzyme", The Independent reports.

We produce hundreds of millions of tons of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic each year for use in things like soda and shampoo bottles.

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The breakthrough follows studies done on bacteria that had naturally evolved and was found feeding on plastic at a waste dump in Japan in 2016. To test this theory, the researchers mutated the PETase and that was when the unexpected happened.

"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.

The battle to curb plastic pollution has received a major boost after scientists developed a way to make recycling much quicker and cheaper. So, the researchers improved the structure of bacteria by adding amino acids. These differences indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET.

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. "We were thrilled to learn that PETase works even better on PEF than on PET", said Beckham. The structure of PET is too crystalline to be easily broken down and while PET can be recycled, most of it is not.

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"The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes now being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels ― the technology exists", said McGeehan.

Prof McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: "We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these "wonder-materials", must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions". The Portsmouth University team, and their collaborators, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, have since filed for a patent.

To examine PETase's efficiency at the molecular level, the team used X-rays to generate an ultra-high-resolution 3D model of the enzyme, revealing an unprecedented glimpse of PETase's active site that enables it to grip and break down its PET target - and also, by chance, how that mechanism can be improved.

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